It sounds almost too good to be true: a cheap and simple drug that kills almost all cancers by switching off their “immortality”. The drug, dichloroacetate (DCA), has already been used for years to treat rare metabolic disorders and so is known to be relatively safe.
It also has no patent, meaning it could be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of newly developed drugs.
Evangelos Michelakis of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, and his colleagues tested DCA on human cells cultured outside the body and found that it killed lung, breast and brain cancer cells, but not healthy cells. Tumours in rats deliberately infected with human cancer also shrank drastically when they were fed DCA-laced water for several weeks.
Again, wow. My mother in law is battling a speck of cancer in her eye, my aunt successfully battled breast cancer, and my husband has an elevated risk of prostate cancer. To think that those worries could be easily set to rest is amazing.
DCA can cause pain, numbness and gait disturbances in some patients, but this may be a price worth paying if it turns out to
be effective against all cancers. The next step is to run clinical trials of DCA in people with cancer. These may have to be funded by charities, universities and governments: pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to pay because they can’t make money on unpatented medicines. The pay-off is that if DCA does work, it will be easy to manufacture and dirt cheap.
Paul Clarke, a cancer cell biologist at the University of Dundee in the UK, says the findings challenge the current assumption that mutations, not metabolism, spark off cancers. “The question is: which comes first?” he says.