Vitamin C used intravenously for the treatment of cancer has been a controversial subject for some time. Now the therapy is finally on track for approval. This is 50 years after Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling and Scottish physician Ewan Cameron first suggested that high doses of vitamin C could treat cancer.

The approval has now reached the second stage of the process, which involves tests for safety and effectiveness. If all goes well, it could be available in cancer wards in just a few years’ time. Although some forward-thinking hospitals and clinics have already offered this treatment. It is on track for approval as an alternative to chemotherapy. Here lies the issue, as vitamin C will never reap the profits for the pharmaceutical industry that chemotherapy has.

The delay has been blamed on the results of previous studies which failed to reproduce the successes that Pauling and Cameron had achieved, even in cases of terminal cancer. Bizarrely, these researchers had not correctly followed the protocol of Pauling and Cameron. Instead of giving high doses of the vitamin intravenously (IV), they used oral vitamin C supplements.

Further trials used the same method, giving reports that this process doesn’t work. However, a review of 39 reports regarding high-dose IV vitamin C therapy for cancer, concluded that the therapy might improve survival, reduce tumour mass and, as a bonus, lessen the worst toxic effects of chemotherapy (Integr. Cancer Ther., 2014).

These findings were similar to the responses from Pauling and Cameron. In fact Pauling became interested in the therapy in 1971, after seeing the results Cameron was achieving at his hospital in Scotland with the use of 10g infusions of vitamin C in patients with untreatable, terminal cancer. When their progress was compared with those of other end-stage patients being given the usual treatments, his patients were found to be living six years longer than the conventionally treated group.

Two aspirin tablets taken daily for a week cut blood levels of vitamin C by half

The importance of IV treatment can be explained by the metabolic peculiarities of vitamin C (also called ascorbic acid or ascorbate). The body can only take up less than half the dose of more than one gram of the vitamin when taken orally (hence taking them throughout the day if you take vitamin C supplements) and this absorption rate continues to fall as the dose increases. Pauling and Cameron were seeing positive results with amounts of 10g or more being fully absorbed, but only when the vitamin was given intravenously.

Taking a closer look at the technical side of this success, the vitamin breaks down easily in the bloodstream and as it does, it generates hydrogen peroxide (HS202), a ‘reactive oxygen species’, which is a type of free radical. This can cause damage to tissues and DNA, healthy cells can easily remove H202 through an enzyme called ‘catalase’. However, cancer cells, which have very low levels of catalase, are less able to do so, hence the way to rid the body of cancer cells (Redox. Biol., 2016).

This suggests that the types of cancer where catalase in the cells is reduced, will respond better to this treatment. The next research is to identify which types of cancer respond better to IV vitamin C. Incidentally, both Pauling and Cameron died of prostate cancer, albeit at a great age, so it could be that this type of cancer does not respond to vitamin C therapy.

Facts about vitamin C:

Humans are among the few mammals unable to make their own vitamin C and so must obtain it from food or supplements.

As it is a water soluble vitamin, the body cannot store it.

Levels of vitamin C vary from person to person, although the average is around two grams. Someone with just 300mg has scurvy and is probably close to death.

High intakes of the vitamin can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

The standard birth control pill lowers vitamin C levels in the body, as do stress and smoking.

Two aspirin tablets, taken daily for a week, cut blood levels of vitamin C by half.

Who shouldn’t take vitamin C:

Although vitamin C has a few side effects other than diarrhoea and incontinence with high doses orally, it is still not for everyone.

Some people cannot take more than one gram or vitamin C as it causes loose bowels.

If you have a poor kidney function vitamin C can cause kidney failure. People with a rare genetic disorder called haemochromatosis, where the body produces too much iron, should avoid it.

Pauling and Cameron could only hope that their therapy would someday be accepted. Cameron wrote: “The matter is capable of arousing almost any emotion… with all grades of scorn, laughter, ridicule and pity in between.

“I hope to convince you that the whole research project has a perfectly sound scientific basis, and that Dr Pauling and I are neither gullible fools, nor are we charlatans.”

Fifty years on, the world is finally beginning to agree.

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