From the blog DESTROYED BY SCIENCE
This blog post is a continuation of No Science, No Evidence, No Clue. You can read Part 1 here.
Claim 2: Alkalinity can cure cancer!
Moving forward to claim number two, where unsurprisingly, we have another triumphant statement that a single, simple treatment can cure cancer. Of course, without an actual reference to exactly where the meme gets it’s information it is somewhat difficult to critique; but a good indicator that the claim is utter pseudoscientific quackery, would be the Google search results. If you are the kind of person that judges a claim based on the source; good news, you need look no further than the articles found at GreenMedinfo (1), Before It’s News (2), The Acid Alkaline Association Diet (3) or It Works! Skinny Wraps (4) – don’t worry, they aren’t trying to sell you anything, nope, not a thing (sarcasm). Those four sites are probably enough to convince you that this claim doesn’t exactly glow with legitimacy. But the woonacy of those sites actually pales in comparison with that seen on the website of Robert O. Young (5) (arrested in 2014 for practicing medicine without a licence) and his
partner in crime wife, Shelley Young.
Dr. David Gorski’s favourite powerpoint slide about Robert O. Young (22). Seemed appropriate.
The pH Miracle Living website (5) essentially tells us that every malady under the sun (including cancer) is a result of your body being too acidic because of your diet; and can therefore be fixed via your diet (and any number of the books, supplements, CD lectures, diet plans and devices that you can conveniently purchase right there on the site). Despite Young’s arrest, the website is still up and running, so that doesn’t seem to have deterred him.
The same theme runs through any of the sites pushing the alkaline diet and of course, all of the above websites invariably come with a disclaimer along the lines of “use our treatments/products/advice at your own risk because they aren’t intended to replace medical advice/treatments”. If you are the kind of person that wants to know just why these articles are in fact best suited for short listing in a “Worst Nonsense Written to Sound Like Legitimate Science” category of the Utter Bullshit Awards (not a real award but should be); then read on.
If you want a quick refresher on pH or you don’t know much about it, check out this explanation onCompound Interest (6), one of my favourite chemistry resources. The TL;DR on pH is that 7 is neutral, below 7 is acidic and above 7 is alkaline. pH is dependent on the amount of free H+ (hydrogen) ions in a solution. The more H+ ions, the more acidic a solution is. And that is probably all you need to know before proceeding to read about why you should avoid the pH Miracle Living website and its products, giving them the same wide berth as you would give someone wearing a David Avocado Wolfe shirt.
Claims that alkalinity can cure cancer seem to be based on a few misconceptions about cancer cells and the extracellular pH of the human body. The first of these is that cancer cells develop because of an acidic environment within the body, when in fact the acidic microenvironment is thought to be an effect of cancer (due to upregulation of glycolysis) as opposed to a cause (7). This misappropriation of the Warburg Effect, when cancer cells shift to glycolysis and continue to rely primarily on glycolysis rather than respiration even in the presence of adequate oxygen, was first discovered by Otto Warburg and is often seen in alkalinity claims – particularly in the case of Robert O. Young (8).
Whilst wading through the murky cloud of misinformation so readily available on the aforementioned websites; I saw the statement “Studies have shown that in the test tube, cancer cells and tumours thrive and grow in a more acidic environment”, mentioned more than once (or one similar). And inevitably, after sowing the seeds of trust using words like “studies have shown”; the woo begins to rear its ugly head, with quotes such as the following from the It Works! Skinny Wraps website:
“When the level of acidity is lowered, tumours grow much more slowly. If this behaviour occurs in the test tube, it stands to reason that cancer cells in the body would also be detrimentally effected by an overall alkaline environment. It would also make sense that if the body’s pH is acidic, then the growth of cancer cells and tumours would be encouraged. By eating mostly foods that make the body’s pH more alkaline, it has been shown that when the pH is 8.5 or higher, the cancer cells cannot survive and grow. So, by adjusting our diet, it is actually possible to create a less hospitable environment for cancer cells.”
I know, I know, I’ve used this meme before – but seriously, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.
I honestly wonder if pseudoscience sellers deliberately find pieces of science that they can deliberately twist and take out of context in order to sell their products and ideas; or if they genuinely believe in their own intellectual dishonesty. Here for instance, the fact that the acidic microenvironment caused by cancer cells has been hypothesised to lead to more aggressive invasive behaviour during carcinogenesis (9); is used dishonestly in two ways. Firstly, to lead people to believe that their “acidic” body pH has caused them to develop cancer in the first place, and secondly, to believe that they will be able to create an alkaline environment in their body that will be unfavourable to cancer cells, causing them to grow more slowly or perish selectively, leaving healthy cells untouched.
Leaving aside the fact that results from in vitro experiments cannot just be translated to what occurs in a living organism; most studies on cancer cells are done in a medium with a pH of 7.2-7.4 (10) which is not acidic. The reason that these conditions are used is that this also conveniently happens to be very close to the pH of extracellular fluid (blood plasma, interstitial fluid) (11) experienced within the human body. The human body also conveniently has a number of mechanisms that ensure this pH does not go outside a very strict range (7.35-7.41) – if it does, the consequences are dire, as in, death. A blood pH level of 8.5 would be a very bad thing. Lets be honest- whether or not cancer cells can be killed by an extreme environment is irrelevant if the extreme environment is going to lead to the death of a patient. This is really no different from saying “Hey, I can destroy these cancer cells in this test tube with napalm. Who wants in?”.
This leads to the next misconception; that the foods you eat can possibly have an effect on the extracellular pH of your body. As I just mentioned, the pH of blood in the human body is carefully controlled; and while there are some things that affect the system, eating too much white rice, beef, mustard, shellfish and mushrooms (all foods on the highly acidic list (12) featured on the pH Miracle Living website) is not one of them. An actual pH imbalance that leads to acidosis is a serious condition that needs medical care. You can read a little more about it here (13); and you can see, eating mustard isn’t listed as one of the causes, nor is eating avocados listed as one of the treatments.
I kind of feel this blog post wouldn’t quite be complete without a reference to the classic xkcd comicbelow, so here you go:
Alkaline solutions kill cancer cells in a petrie dish? So does a handgun.
I think it is worth giving a mention to another form of pH therapy here, the administration of cesium chloride. This is based on a research paper from 1984 by A. Keith Brewer; you can read it here (14). Like the Virginia Study, alternative medicine advocates hail this study as proof of a secret cancer cure, when in reality there is no good evidence to support it’s use.
You can confirm this by reading the information on the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre website (15). Or you can read about one of the proponents, Hellfried Sartori, here (16) and here (17). Or you could read this story in Doubtful News (18) about a woman who died after administrating a cesium chloride injection in an attempt to cure her breast cancer. A case study on this woman’s tragic story was published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (19). Finally, “Ed’s Guide to Alternative Therapies” has a run down on the “nope” factor of cesium chloride (20).
As you can see, “treatments” such as high pH therapy can have terrible consequences and it is very sad when a person loses the one chance they may have had to fight cancer, by choosing an unproven, dangerous method, instead of modern medicine.
All in all, I feel like I have done a relatively thorough job of showing why the claim “Alkalinity can cure cancer” is a dubious claim; but if you care to read more on why it is so pseudoscience-y, here are a few links to science blogs and articles on the topic:
- Orac (Respectful Insolence) writes about Robert O. Young: “Your Friday Dose of Woo: Acid base or woo (revisited)” (8)
- Dr. David Gorski (Science Based Medicine) writes about Robert O. Young: “pH Miracle Living “Dr.” Robert O. Young finally arrested, but will it stop him?” (21)
- The most recent post on Robert O. Young from Dr. Gorski (Science Based Medicine) with the latest on Robert O. Young’s court case (22)
- Oliver Childs (Cancer research UK Science Blog): “10 Persistent Cancer Myths Debunked: Myth 3 – ‘Acidic’ diets cause cancer” (23)
- A review on anti cancer diets shows no benefit and underlying hypothesis “not compatible with scientific concepts of cancer” (Anticancer Research: International Journal of Cancer Research and Treatment): “Counselling Patients on Cancer Diets: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations for Clinical Practice” (24)
- Robert Todd Carroll (The Skeptic’s Dictionary): “alkaline diet” (25)
- Dr. Gabe Mirkin (Quackwatch): “Acid/Alkaline Theory of Disease is Nonsense” (19)
I’ve tried to include as much information about the alkalinity claim here as possible and I intend to update in the future if anything new comes to light. Alkalinity can “cure” cancer claim – done and dusted. In Part 3 I will tackle the claim that “Juicing” can cure cancer. Thanks for reading!
(1) Shaw, N. (2013). Why An Alkaline Approach Can Successfully Treat Cancer. Greenmedinfo.com. Retrieved 5 November 2015, from http://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/why-alkaline-approach-can-successfully-treat-cancer
(2) Curran, R. (2013). How Alkaline Foods Help Prevent Cancer | Health. Before It’s News | Alternative News | UFO | Beyond Science | True News| Prophecy News | People Powered News. Retrieved 5 November 2015, from http://beforeitsnews.com/health/2013/03/how-alkaline-foods-help-prevent-cancer-2477314.html
(3) Acidalkalinediet.net,. (2015). Cancer Cures—Natural Cancer Cures—Cures For Cancer | Hemp Oil Cures Cancer | Alternative Cancer Cures | Natural Cures For Cancer. Retrieved 9 November 2015, from http://www.acidalkalinediet.net/cancer-cures-body-ph-and-your-diet.php
(4) Itworksskinnywraps.blogspot.com.au,. (2015). ItWorks! Skinny Wraps: Alkaline Body Balance: The Single Most Important Thing You Can Do For Yourself. Retrieved 9 November 2015, from http://itworksskinnywraps.blogspot.com.au/p/what-many-people-dont-know-is-that-many.html
(5) Phmiracleliving.com,. (2012). The pH Miracle for Cancer | pHMiracleLiving Alkalizing Health Care. Retrieved 8 November 2015, from http://www.phmiracleliving.com/p-253-the-ph-miracle-for-cancer-audio-series.aspx
(6) Compound Interest,. (2015). Acids, Alkalis, and the pH Scale. Retrieved 6 November 2015, from http://www.compoundchem.com/2015/07/09/ph-scale/
(7) Gatenby, R., & Gillies, R. (2004). Why do cancers have high aerobic glycolysis?. Nature Reviews Cancer, 4(11), 891-899. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nrc1478
(8) Orac,. (2007). Your Friday Dose of Woo: Acid, base, or woo (revisited). Respectful Insolence. Retrieved 9 November 2015, from http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2007/06/08/your-friday-dose-of-woo-acid-base-or-woo-2/
(9) Moellering, R., Black, K., Krishnamurty, C., Baggett, B., Stafford, P., & Rain, M. et al. (2008). Acid treatment of melanoma cells selects for invasive phenotypes. Clin Exp Metastasis, 25(4), 411-425. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10585-008-9145-7
(10) Langdon, S. (2004). Cancer cell culture. Totowa, N.J.: Humana Press, pages 9-10.
(11) Lewis, J. (2015). Overview of Acid-Base Balance – Hormonal and Metabolic Disorders. MSD Manual Consumer Version. Retrieved 9 November 2015, from http://www.msdmanuals.com/en-au/home/hormonal-and-metabolic-disorders/acid-base-balance/overview-of-acid-base-balance
(12) Phmiracleliving.com,. (2012). Acid/Alkaline Food Chart. Retrieved 9 November 2015, from http://www.phmiracleliving.com/t-food-chart.aspx
(13) Lewis, J. (2015). Acidosis – Hormonal and Metabolic Disorders. MSD Manual Consumer Version. Retrieved 9 November 2015, from http://www.msdmanuals.com/en-au/home/hormonal-and-metabolic-disorders/acid-base-balance/acidosis
(14) Brewer, A. (1984). The high pH therapy for cancer tests on mice and humans. Pharmacology Biochemistry And Behavior, 21, 1-5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0091-3057(84)90152-7
(15) Mskcc.org,. (2015). Cesium Chloride | Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Retrieved 11 November 2015, from https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/cesium-chloride
(16) Wood, L. (2010). ‘Cured’ cancer patients died, court told. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 11 November 2015, from http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/life/cured-cancer-patients-died-court-told-20101119-180z9.html
(17) Jones, L. (2015). Hellfried Sartori hid criminal record to practise in Australia. HeraldSun. Retrieved 11 November 2015, from http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/breaking-news/hellfried-sartori-hid-criminal-record-to-practise-in-australia/story-e6frf7jx-1225956730443
(18) Hill, S. (2014). Cesium chloride treatment directly contributed to death, not cure. Doubtful News. Retrieved 11 November 2015, from http://doubtfulnews.com/2014/01/cesium-chloride-treatment-directly-contributed-to-death-not-cure/
(19) Sessions, D., Heard, K., & Kosnett, M. (2013). Fatal Cesium Chloride Toxicity After Alternative Cancer Treatment. The Journal Of Alternative And Complementary Medicine, 19(12), 973-975. http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/acm.2012.0745
(20) Unknown,. (2011). Ed’s Guide to Alternative Therapies. Pathguy.com. Retrieved 11 November 2015, from http://www.pathguy.com/altermed.htm#cesium
(21) Gorski, D. (2014). pH Miracle Living “Dr.” Robert O. Young is finally arrested, but will it stop him? « Science-Based Medicine. Sciencebasedmedicine.org. Retrieved 9 November 2015, from https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/ph-miracle-living-dr-robert-o-young-finally-arrested-but-will-it-stop-him/
(22) Gorski, D. (2015). Stanislaw Burzynski and Robert O. Young: How two quacks of a feather illustrate how poorly states regulate medical practice « Science-Based Medicine. Sciencebasedmedicine.org. Retrieved 24 November 2015, from https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/stanislaw-burzynski-and-robert-o-young-how-two-quacks-of-a-feather-illustrate-how-poorly-states-regulate-medical-practice/
(23) Childs, O. (2015). Don’t believe the hype – 10 persistent cancer myths debunked. Cancer Research UK – Science blog. Retrieved 9 November 2015, from http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2014/03/24/dont-believe-the-hype-10-persistent-cancer-myths-debunked/#acidic-diets
(24) Huebner, J., Marienfeld, S., Abbenhardt, C., Ulrich, C., Muensted, K., & Micke, O. et al. (2014). Counseling Patients on Cancer Diets: A Review of the Literature and Recommendations for Clinical Practice. Anticancer Research, 34(1), 46. Retrieved from http://ar.iiarjournals.org/content/34/1/39.full
(25) Carroll, R. (2015). alkaline diet – The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Skepdic.com. Retrieved 9 November 2015, from http://skepdic.com/alkalinediet.html
(26) Mirkin, G. (2009). Acid/Alkaline Theory of Disease Is Nonsense. Quackwatch.org. Retrieved 9 November 2015, from http://www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/DSH/coral2.html