Growing up, there was a teacher named Mrs. DePinho who taught me how to weave using a clementine box during arts and crafts class. She was a patient and kind person and even though I had sticky fingers from all the junk food I’d be eating at recess, she found it added 'character' to my skill. She was always encouraging me to dive into my imagination and create whatever I could think of. I did just that and I always showed her what I was creating, whether it was an utterly ridiculous piece of work or just whatever a nine year-old could create at that age. Then one day we had a supply teacher instead of Mrs. DePinho who we suddenly observed was missing for a few weeks. Her absence was later announced by faculty notifying us that she had been sick and wouldn’t be returning to school which was heartbreaking to me because I wanted to show her the crochet piece I had made for my mother and basically, get her approval if it looked good.
Weeks had gone by, even months and still no sign of Mrs. DePinho. As a child, we don’t notice the passage of time or put any meaning to someone's absence because it doesn’t matter in our world. We have no worries and just care to play on the swings, under the warm sun. However, soon enough, time suddenly came to a standstill and our school held an assembly to announce that they had lost a member of their staff and that Mrs. DePinho had died. She was suffering from breast cancer and though I did not know the exact details then, I remember the word “cancer” because after class, our teacher was talking to us about life and death and how cancer plays a part in it sometimes. I remember I cried a bit but was more confused about why something so terrible was even a part of our lives. Why was cancer even existent? What is its purpose? Why didn’t doctors just get it out?
It was around this time last year that I was talking to one of my best friends about the loss he faced with cancer and how he’s been dealing with it. He mentioned very briefly about a cancer fighting drug called dichloroacetate acid “DCA” and though I had heard about it some years ago, I didn’t know the exact details about it. He told me that it fights all cancers and had minimal side effects. After researching further into it on my own, I realized this is something that needs attention. Currently it doesn’t have a patent and is relatively inexpensive compared to other cancer fighting drugs and research shows it would not have the same negative side-affects of traditional chemotherapy. DCA has piqued my interest and it is being investigated by many right now. It has had a bit of a voice but if you have one to project, be loud and be proud. That’s what my best friend would tell me. I have friends who have been affected by cancer and a few of them still feel the pinch everyday of the life they’ve lost. With all the medical breakthroughs and progressions in cancer treatments we’ve seen today, DCA is one that needs to be noticed and spotlighted for mass production. It isn’t at all a cure-all drug, but it does benefit those suffering and provides an option for a life lived without pain. However, not everything is what it seems as there’s a catch, unfortunately. More studies are needed to see if it's useful, but no company stands to make a profit in this cheap chemical by-product of some chlorination process and therefore no one is spending the billions it takes to run the studies and get the necessary approval.
Further, the drug isn't patented as yet and is an 'orphan drug' but has been on the public radar for 30 years now even though it has been in successful clinical trials and used to treat children who have rare genetic conditions with their metabolism due to mitochondrial diseases. It holds the key to a completely new way of treating cancers. However, the pharmaceutical companies don’t see a major interest in funding approximately $100 million in further research if treatment won't make them a profit as the drug is inexpensive and any company can make it.
What is DCA? It’s known as dichloroacetic acid and is an ordourless, colourless, non-toxic and rather small molecule that researchers at the University of Alberta believe can be helpful when treating various forms of cancer. By weakening the lung, breast and brain tumours cells, the molecule appears to repair the damage that cancer cells cause to mitochondria but don’t necessarily kill off cancer cells. They’re designed to reprogram the mitochondria, which is the energy production centre in cells and allowing them to resume normal function while shutting them down.
Studies on the drug have been conducted since 2007 and there has been much controversy surrounding it over the years. A study on mice was performed where they were inflicted with severe tumours but when given water supplemented with DCA, their cells shrank significantly.
Dr. Evangelos Michelakis and his colleagues at the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Alberta discovered a drug that reversed the genetic conditions in children, was also the same molecule responsible for normalizing mitochondrial functions in many cancers which presented evidence that the molecule actively suppresses the cancer cells entirely.
Canadian research on patients with brain tumours had discovered some interesting findings with DCA being able to shrink the tumours by altering the cancer cell’s metabolism. The DCA drug blocks an enzyme in mitochondria, causing more glucose to be metabolized in the production centre rather than taking a different path into the cytoplasm, which is the jelly-like substance that surrounds the nucleolus of the cell and contains most of the cell’s organelles. The drug then acts as an inhibitor of mitochondrial pyruvate dehydrogenase kinase (PDK), which slows down the pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDH), known as the gate-keeping enzyme for entry of pyruvate into the mitochondrial tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle.
Now, we’re all thinking it: what does that really mean? Reading back, it’s not something non-scientists like ourselves can actually comprehend but basically in layman’s terms, it resets the cells, helping to improve the microenvironment surrounding the cancer cells by increasing the oxygen levels of tumours through various stages without harming other cells and returning back to normal production. With this discovery, researchers always believed damage to mitochondria in cancer cells to be permanent but Dr. Michelakis has seen otherwise as this compound might be able to treat many different forms of cancer since they all suppress mitochondrial function.
It was observed also that the drug was distinctly different than chemotherapy treatments and did not affect non-cancerous, normal tissues, showing low toxicity and minimal side effects. Since it is a small compound, it’s easily absorbed in the body and eradicates major cancer cells while healthy cells are left untouched and not affecting any of their biological makeup.
Earlier in 2007 Health Canada approved DCA for a limited trial on people with an aggressive brain cancer. Then last year, the researchers at the University of Alberta reported evidence from that trial that the drug may hold promise for perhaps the deadliest of all human cancers: a form of brain cancer called glioblastoma. A small human trial was conducted on five patients, collecting 49 samples of tissue and the results were encouraging. It appeared that the drug lengthened the life of four of the five study participants, which is something to definitely cheer about it. It’s proof of principle that the treatment does work even though it was a small test group.
There is the issue now of mass marketing a product that works but it plays a tricky situation for the U.S pharmaceutical companies that are not investing in this research due to strong patent protections. The drug’s patents are complex and can’t be easily obtained since it has been in the public domain for many years now. The use of DCA for cancer treatment can be patented but the patent protection is weaker which would mean companies aren’t guaranteed larger profits even though it’s inexpensive to create. The drug has been funded by public donations and organizations over the years but the lack of attention in the media regarding this medical breakthrough is shocking. There are millions of cancer patients worldwide and Dr. Michelakis’ research at the University of Alberta brings new meaning to a world of hope in the battle against cancer.
There are some critics who believe the research to be inconclusive and that these pockets of successful testing to be nothing more of coincidence but there isn’t a risk to just actually, try and develop. They venture to say that DCA has neurophysiology degenerative side effects and in high doses is itself carcinogenic. It seems easy to say this without considering the rights and production costs. However to the millions of cancer patients, it would be worth every penny to at least consider the merits inherent in the drug. Results also show that the drug does not appear to harm normal cells, which means there would be none of the debilitating side-effects such as nausea or extreme fatigue associated with conventional cancer therapies.
This development in DCA for cancer could benefit quite a lot of people and with the side effects being the least of the drug’s worries, this can definitely give new life to those like my best friend who lost someone he loved and cared for two years ago, or another friend of mine who misses her father every day after he lost his battle with cancer almost a decade ago or even Mrs. DePinho, who would have still been teaching arts and crafts at my elementary school today to other kids with sticky fingers.
Whatever the case, once you choose to hope, anything’s possible and with the way medical advances have been progressing in these last few years, the way researchers go down this path, they’ll understand what molecularly is happening within the cell and that targeting the metabolism of cancer cells might just be the new frontier for cancer treatment. The next step Dr. Michelakis and his team are currently taking is to complete larger phase trials in order to prove the safety of the DCA drug and its mass effectiveness in killing cancer cells.
The information in this article is to raise awareness of the possibility of DCA in fighting cancer, and funding research that is vital; and is not to be construed as medical advice.
For futher information about the DCA drug, research or to read testimonials check out the University of Alberta’s official website.
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