James Watson, the man who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, has unleashed a new hypothesis on the cancer world, and people are listening.
Writing in the journal Open Biology, Watson is proposing that antioxidants—those curiously mystical panaceas every food manufacturer has been cramming into their Nutrition Fact labels—might undermine treatment of metastatic or advanced cancer.
They might even contribute to the cancer's development:
"The time has come to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer."
He also dropped a few bombs on how the U.S. is currently waging its war against cancer, trashing MD Anderson's recent commitment to find cures to nine different cancers within a decade and criticizing the targeted treatment approach for ignoring the reality that if you block one signaling pathway, cancer cells will just find another one.
Watson is calling this one of his most important contributions since the double-helix. He's saying this:
Anti-cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy are heavily reliant on DNA- and RNA-damaging reactive oxygen species to throw a wrench into the cell cycle and force cancer cells to die.
Antioxidants neutralize those reactive oxygen species.
So if you're consuming a lot of antioxidants while you're undergoing some cancer treatments, Watson is suggesting that you're depriving the treatments of their ability to do their work—in effect, that you're cancelling them out.
The Everyday Takeaway
Go to anywhere that books are sold and you will find shelves of books on cancer-protective diets or recipes and meals that will help a cancer patient while they're undergoing treatment. The overwhelming majority of these books are bunk—based on junk science, if science at all. They prey on the cancer patients' often newfound interest in eating better and taking better care of themselves. It's one way to regain some control over their lives in the wake of a cancer diagnosis.
To that end, oftentimes patients seek out nutritional supplements in the hopes of contributing to their wellness. I think the best takeaway from Watson's paper for cancer patients is to remind them to discuss supplements—whether they contain antioxidants or not—with their oncologist prior to treatment, and to follow the advice they receive. It can also serve as a reminder that cancer patients should have on their treatment team an oncology nutritionist or dietary specialist, and if they don't, to ask their doctor to arrange a consultation with one.