“Understanding the cancer and metabolism connection is crucial for developing effective prevention and treatment strategies for cancer.” Leigh Erin Connealy, MD, Founder of the Cancer Center for Healing, Irvine, CA. Cancer and Metabolism Connection: Unravelling the Link, August 19, 2023.
This week marks the tenth anniversary of our son Ryan’s passing in September 2013 from cancer. My heart is heavy with emotion as I write. Could anything have been done differently to help him?
Ryan’s type of cancer was extremely rare. The number of cases like Ryan’s, as reported in the medical literature, could be counted on my fingers. No validated therapeutic approaches were available to help him. Ryan lived valiantly for two months after receiving this dreaded news.
In his memory, I recently surveyed progress against the scourge of cancer that has been made over these intervening ten years. I was particularly looking for evidence-based approaches that are more benign, less invasive, broadly applicable, lower cost, and not widely known or practiced.
I found what I was looking for!
A brightening hope is dawning on the horizon. A new paradigm for combating cancer is slowly coming into view. Treatment strategies and protocols, which complement radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery, are emerging. They are based upon exploiting a distinctive weakness found in cancer cells, the long-known and extensively studied Warburg effect.
The Warburg Effect
A century ago, Nobel Prize winner Otto Heinrich Warburg discovered the Warburg effect. (Dr. Warburg was nominated for the Nobel 47 times over his illustrious career.)
Dr. Warburg and his fellow researchers in Germany discovered that cancer cells possess a commonly shared defect in energy metabolism. They are abnormally dependent upon carbohydrates – specifically the sugar glucose – to survive.
Furthermore, compared to healthy cells, this commonly shared defect permits cancer cells to extract only a very small amount (less than 10 percent) of the food energy present in glucose. To obtain enough energy to stay alive and proliferate, cancer cells must consume anomalously high quantities of glucose.
The Warburg effect forms the basis for Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, the diagnostic tool that detects elevated concentrations of a radioactive glucose analog at different locations in the body. Malignant tumors, grasping for any form of glucose they can find, show up as easily discernible radioactive hot spots.
The Role of Mitochondria in the Warburg Effect
Mitochondria are microscopic power plants. They are the principal structures that provide our bodies with energy from carbs, fats, and proteins. Proper functioning of these tiny organelles, present in large numbers in each cell, is crucial for health and wellbeing.
Cancer cells, unlike healthy cells, extract energy from glucose using a fermentation process that occurs independent from and outside of the mitochondria.
In addition to this anomaly, microscopic examinations have shown that mitochondria appear in diminished numbers in cancer cells. What is more, those mitochondria that do appear, they are often misshapen and damaged. Consequently, cancer cells are incapable of making efficient use of the energy contained in proteins or fats. Cancers truly are sugar junkies.
These findings have convinced a growing number of healthcare professionals to envision cancer not only as a genetic disease caused by harmful mutations to the cell’s DNA, but as a cellular metabolic disease arising from defective mitochondria as well.
This expanded framework of oncology is leading to the development of more generalized and more benign protocols such as the ketogenic diet, fasting, and metabolic therapies for cancer treatment.
The Ketogenic Diet, Fasting, and Metabolic Therapy
The ketogenic diet provides food calories mostly from fats and proteins, with very little coming from carbohydrates. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends carbohydrates provide 45-65% of calories we eat. In a therapeutic keto diet, carbohydrates comprise as little as 5-10% of caloric intake.
By following a strict ketogenic dietary protocol, researchers such as Thomas Seyfried, Ph.D., have found cancer cells begin to starve. This is especially true during periods of fasting, when out of necessity the body turns to stored fat reserves for energy. In a process called ketosis, the liver converts fats into ketone bodies. Healthy cells can readily use these ketone bodies as a source of energy. Cancer cells cannot.
(Please be aware some may experience fatigue, dizziness, and nausea for a few days until the body adjusts to being in a state of ketosis. I recommend consulting a clinical dietitian and your doctor before embarking upon a ketogenic diet.)
While on the ketogenic diet, drugs called metabolic inhibitors can be administered briefly to further diminish energy production in cancer cells. This one-two punch of a ketogenic diet and metabolic inhibitors renders many cancers weakened and thus highly susceptible to conventional treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.
Because conventional therapies are more efficacious against weakened cancer cells, dosage and frequency of these toxic and destructive treatments can be decreased to such a degree that patients report the usual adverse side effects (nausea, hair loss, etc.) diminished or even eliminated!
“Cancer, above all other diseases, has countless secondary causes. But, even for cancer, there is only one prime cause. Summarized in a few words, the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar.”
– Otto H. Warburg
Over the many decades that have elapsed since Dr. Warburg wrote these bold words, academia, the medical profession, regulators, institutional review boards, and grant awarding entities have strongly rejected this metabolic view of the origin of cancer.
Cancer is indeed a complex disease involving a bewildering array of genetic, molecular, cellular, food, lifestyle, and environmental factors. And yet, can we find a common thread weaving all these cancer risk factors together to develop a more generalized approach to treatment?
I sense a growing awareness that the Warburg effect—the direct link between cellular metabolism and tumor initiation, growth, and progression—may be just such a thread.
Warburg’s system-level approach of understanding the link between cancer and metabolism is sparking new hope for benign, effective treatments with improved outcomes and with minimal damage to healthy tissue. Cancer centers that perform innovative metabolic treatment services are emerging around the world.
In conclusion, the metabolic approach for cancer treatment is an evolving field. More research into the benefits and risks of ketogenic diets, fasting, and metabolic therapies is needed. Nevertheless, I believe we are embarking on a fruitful path. For all who are suffering with cancer, and all who are providing for their care, may it be so.