What Causes Cancer? Part I

Cancer as a Metabolic DiseaseThomas Seyfried PhD, a brain cancer researcher with over 25 years of experience in the field, gave a groundbreaking presentation about cancer at the Ancestral Health Symposium held at Harvard Law School this past August. The three main take-home points of his talk:

1. Cancer is not caused by genetic mutations
2. Cancer is a mitochondrial disease
3. Cancer can be treated with ketogenic diets

The gene theory of cancer

In case your basic biology is rusty: our genes are made of DNA—coils of coded information that tell our cells exactly how to build all the proteins they need to conduct their daily business. These blueprints have to be flexible, because cells need different proteins under different circumstances. Cells must be able to adapt to various conditions, such as stress, injury, infection, temperature changes, and food supply. So, genes contain lots of special controls that can be turned on and off, depending on what’s going on in and around the cell.

I was taught in medical school that cancer is about genes going haywire—something evil comes along, like a toxic chemical or a beam of radiation, attacks your DNA, and poof—you've got cancer (unless you are a cartoon character, in which case you develop superpowers). Mutant cells start dividing like crazy and taking over your body. I was also taught that the way to get rid of cancer is to flood it with toxic chemicals and radiation . . . hmmm . . .

The company line is that cancer is caused by mutations (changes) in DNA that transform healthy, well-behaved cells into reckless, ravenous, immortal renegades. These mutations hijack the set of instructions encoded in the cells’ DNA, and scientists think these mutations cause cells to go wild.

Differences between healthy cells and cancer cells

Cancer cells are very different from normal cells. They grow independently, ignoring the anti-growth signals and death cues that would normally keep healthy cells from getting out of control. Cancer cells create their own blood supply and can divide forever. They lose many of the physical features of their mother cells; they are usually smaller, and may be disfigured or even shapeless. Sometimes they fuse with each other or with neighboring cells, creating strange hybrids. The most aggressive types of cancer cells invade local tissues and/or break loose and travel in the bloodstream to distant parts of the body (metastasize).

Hundreds of thousands of different mutations have been discovered in cancerous cells, but it is actually rare to find genetic mutations in healthy cells because healthy cells have stable DNA. DNA is the most important molecule in the body so evolution has made sure it is well-protected. The DNA of healthy cells is not fragile. It would not have survived all this time if it were. There are even “caretaker genes” that are designed to maintain and repair defects in DNA, because lots of things in the natural environment can injure DNA—even things we think of as healthy, such as sunlight and vegetables.

Cancer cells have unstable DNA, which mutates easily and is therefore constantly changing. This is why there are so many mutations found in cancer cells. This “genomic instability” is viewed as a strong suit by scientists who believe in the mutation theory. They think that the tumor cells keep mutating to improve themselves, and that the ones with the most clever mutations are the ones which survive best and reproduce best (Darwinism—survival of the fittest). They think of cancerous cells as invincible—as stronger, faster, and smarter than healthy cells. But this isn’t true.

Yes, most tumor cells are growing faster than most of their healthy neighboring cells, but this is not because they are speedier. It’s because they are unregulated. All the healthy cells around them are capable of growing just as fast, but there are checks and balances in place to prevent them from growing willy-nilly. When necessary, they can grow just as fast, if not faster than tumor cells do. For example, when the liver is injured and healthy cells need to grow rapidly to replace the injured cells, their growth rate is the same as for liver cancer cells during tumor progression.

Tumor cells are more vulnerable than healthy cells. This is how radiation and chemotherapy work. Radiation and chemotherapy are toxic to all cells, cancerous or not, but they are more toxic to tumor cells. If tumor cells were more robust than normal cells, these therapies would kill off all your healthy cells and only the big ugly tumor would survive. Instead, people are treated to the brink of destruction with chemicals and radiation while doctors cross their fingers hoping more tumor cells will die than healthy cells, and that patients will survive the therapy.

Fragile DNA is not flexible enough or coordinated enough to respond to challenges. It is, after all, the stability of healthy DNA that allows our cells to adapt to stressful environments. Tumor cells are also more sensitive to heat (fever) and to starvation. When the body is stressed, the tumor cells are the first ones to go. These are not supervillain clones.

Just because cancer cells have lots of mutations doesn’t necessarily mean that mutations cause cancer. Seyfried argues that mutations are just red herrings (no disrespect to the herring community intended).

Poking holes in the mutation theory

The “oncogenic paradox” refers to this puzzle:

  • A huge variety of things in the world—from viruses to radiation to chemicals to oxidation—can damage DNA and cause mutations. Seyfried quotes Nobel-prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi: "It is getting more and more difficult to find something that is not carcinogenic.”
  • There are hundreds of thousands of unique mutations associated with tumors. A single colon cancer cell can contain 11,000 mutations! The sheer number and type of mutations found in cancer cells are so serious that they would cause a healthy embryo to spontaneously abort, yet cancer cells somehow soldier on.
  • The transformation of a healthy cell into a cancerous cell (malignant transformation) happens in the very same specific way every time.

How can all of these different and unpredictable events leading to all of those random mutations always cause exactly the same outcome? That’s like saying no matter how you attack an orc—whether you stab him in the belly with a sword, throw a rock at his head, or push him off a cliff—his left arm always falls off. Preposterous.

No specific mutation is a reliable marker for any one type of cancer

There is not one example of a mutation that causes the same type of cancer every time. Even those mutations most strongly associated with certain cancers only cause cancer in certain people.

Cancer cells within the very same tumor can have different mutation patterns.

Mutated genes thought to be strongly associated with cancer (“oncogenes”) sometimes do promote tumor growth, but sometimes they inhibit tumor growth, and sometimes they even do both.

Transplant experiments make the strongest case

Here’s the thing: if you transplant mutated cancer cell DNA into a healthy cell, the healthy cell almost never becomes cancerous. Only 2 out of 24 experiments were successful in transforming normal cells into cancer cells (and scientists couldn’t be sure that viral contamination wasn’t to blame). These results essentially kill the mutation theory dead on the spot.

Seyfried's Cancer as a Metabolic Disease cancer nucleus experiment results

The war on cancer

Just think about it: if cancer is a genetic disease, based on hundreds of thousands of mutations, what are we supposed to do, create hundreds of thousands of different drugs to treat it?

President Nixon declared war on cancer 40 years ago. The mutation theory of cancer has been solidly in place and guiding research since 1981, yet despite the enormous amounts of money, time, and energy that have been poured into cancer research since, we continue to lose the war against this killer disease. Fifteen-hundred Americans die every day from cancer. Researchers now place hope in the Cancer Genome Project, which they see as the shining future of cancer treatment. They have already started using the genetic fingerprints of cancer to design expensive, high-tech drugs that specifically target the unique DNA pattern of individual cancer cells. More than 700 of these smart bombs have been developed so far, yet none of them have saved a single life. The vast majority of whatever progress we have made against cancer has been due to identification of and education about lifestyle risk factors (such as smoking), not due to advances based on genetic theories.

Seyfried argues that the reason why we are making so little progress is because we are fighting the wrong enemy. Genes, he argues, are not the enemy, and they are not in the driver’s seat. Instead, they are innocent victims of the cancer. They are damaged, destabilized, and randomly mutated by the cancerous process. But if genetic mutations do not cause cancer, what does? How do cancer cells get by with all of these mutations? What keeps them going? And what causes all of these mutations in the first place?

In the next article in the series, "What Causes Cancer: Part II," I explain the role of mitochondria in our cells and the significant link between damaged mitochondria and cancer.

To read my detailed critique of the World Health Organization's 2015 report claiming that red meat causes cancer: "WHO Says Meat Causes Cancer"

Recommended ketogenic diet and cancer resources

  • Cancer as a Metabolic Disease
  • Tripping over the Truth book cover
  • Keto for Cancer book cover

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