Noble Prize recipient James Watson this month published a proposal stating that antioxidants, such as those found in blueberries or multivitamin supplements, could actually promote late-stage cancer progression. The paper, published in the journal Open Biology, is considered by Watson to be “among my most important work since the double helix.” Watson and his colleague Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA in 1953.
Watson believes that oxidants and antioxidants could play a role in currently incurable cancers. From the paper:
For as long as I have been focused on the understanding and curing of cancer (I taught a course on Cancer at Harvard in the autumn of 1959), well-intentioned individuals have been consuming antioxidative nutritional supplements as cancer preventatives if not actual therapies. The past, most prominent scientific proponent of their value was the great Caltech chemist, Linus Pauling, who near the end of his illustrious career wrote a book with Ewan Cameron in 1979, Cancer and Vitamin C, about vitamin C’s great potential as an anti-cancer agent . At the time of his death from prostate cancer in 1994, at the age of 93, Linus was taking 12 g of vitamin C every day. In light of the recent data strongly hinting that much of late-stage cancer’s untreatability may arise from its possession of too many antioxidants, the time has come to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer.
All in all, the by now vast number of nutritional intervention trials using the antioxidants β-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium have shown no obvious effectiveness in preventing gastrointestinal cancer nor in lengthening mortality . In fact, they seem to slightly shorten the lives of those who take them. Future data may, in fact, show that antioxidant use, particularly that of vitamin E, leads to a small number of cancers that would not have come into existence but for antioxidant supplementation. Blueberries best be eaten because they taste good, not because their consumption will lead to less cancer.
Watson proposes that the cell-killing ability of some anti-cancer treatments is due to the action of a group of molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS). If ROS induce cell death, Watson claims, it could explain why chemotherapy-resistant cancers also become resistant to radiation treatments.