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Globe reporter Carly Weeks

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

The Internet loves a good conspiracy.

Have you heard the one about scientists finding a cure for cancer, but it being blocked from the public because Big Pharma can't make a cent off it?

Those sensational accusations appear on multiple websites and YouTube videos that purport to expose the "truth" about how a cheap and safe drug that has been around for decades is actually an expert cancer-cell killer. They claim that because the drug, called dichloroacetic acid or dichloroacetate (DCA), is a widely available chemical compound and can't be patented, drug companies aren't interested in pursuing it as a cancer treatment. Some conspiracy theorists take it a step further, saying that health organizations and cancer charities are in on the plot to keep this miracle drug out of sight because they have ties to drug firms and want to keep money flowing their way.

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It reads like the plot of a cheesy gift-shop thriller.

However, the idea that DCA may be used to eradicate cancer cells originated in respected medical journals, not the bowels of the Internet. Subsequent media attention painted a glowing picture of DCA as a cancer treatment, which led to a frenzy among patients and family members desperately hoping for a cure.

The true picture, however, is far less clear.

A "miracle drug"?

In January, 2007, a study by University of Alberta researchers published in the journal Cancer Cell said DCA successfully shrank lung, breast and brain tumours. The paper attracted worldwide attention and in the days that followed, media outlets described the finding as "a potentially life-saving treatment" that "astounded" researchers.

Lead researcher Dr. Evangelos Michelakis, Canada Research Chair in molecular and mitochondrial medicine, told The Canadian Press in 2007 that "One of the really exciting things about this compound is that it might be able to treat many different forms of cancer."

Michelakis did not respond to a request for an interview for this story.

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This was their theory: DCA, a compound used to treat rare metabolic diseases, can stop cancer growth by altering the metabolism of the disease. The drug "tricks cancer cells into normal energy production" and causes them to "'commit suicide' without harming healthy cells," according to a 2010 University of Alberta press release.

Many media outlets also reported that no clinical trials would be done to test the drug in humans because pharmaceutical companies couldn't make money off it. Before long, cancer patients in Canada began self-medicating with DCA they purchased over the Internet.

In 2010, more good news came: Michelakis and his colleagues tested DCA in five brain-tumour patients and found favourable results. The drug appeared to slow tumour growth.

Media reports, including in this newspaper, asked whether DCA was a "miracle drug." Is it any wonder that so many patients bought into the hype?

Too good to be true

One important fact that has been missing from the discussion about DCA is there's no clear evidence the drug stops cancer growth in humans. The 2007 research paper showed DCA slowed cancer growth in mice and human cells grown in a petri dish.

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While that may sound promising, the leap from treating mice to humans spans an enormous chasm. Many promising treatments and drugs tested in animals have ultimately failed once applied to humans. The same goes for cells in a petri dish. That's why many advocates for improved health journalism warn against reporting studies conducted in mice and other animals. The results may be promising, but they are simply too preliminary to be of much significance to the average person.

What about the 2010 study on brain-tumour patients? While the study showed favourable results, a 2011 newsletter from the B.C. Cancer Agency noted that patients had also received chemotherapy and radiation. There's no telling what helped them: DCA or traditional medicine. The patients in the study also had similar survival rates to those who only received chemo and radiation.

Meanwhile, other researchers have reported troubling news. A team from the University of Guelph studying DCA in mice found the drug actually seemed to speed the growth of some colon-cancer tumours.

"Cancer is a complicated disease," said Dr. Brenda Coomber, professor in biomedical sciences at the University of Guelph who led the study. "Other labs besides mine have seen that, depending on the kind of cancer, DCA may or may not have a cell-killing effect."

Coomber points out that cancer is many diseases. Colon, breast and other types of cancer come in many forms and manifest themselves differently. It doesn't mean DCA won't work for anyone, but figuring the who, where, when and what is staggeringly complex.

And DCA isn't completely harmless. It has been shown to cause serious nerve and even brain damage at certain doses.

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Dr. Robert Nuttall, acting director of cancer control policy at the Canadian Cancer Society, said the organization has funded trials looking at DCA and that other researchers around the world are studying the compound. But patients need to know it's not the miracle drug it was once made out to be.

"There's a lot of other compounds out there that show a similar level of promise to this," he said. "It's not necessarily the most promising thing out there."

Clinging to hope

The language of medical discoveries is a tricky business. Every week, dozens of press releases cross the news wires, alerting editors and readers to a new "breakthrough" or "landmark discovery" that may forever change the way a disease is treated.

What is often missing from those announcements is that those discoveries may just as likely change nothing. True breakthroughs are rare and the development of important new treatments takes years – decades, even – of rigorous research and study. Overzealous reporting of preliminary findings may generate positive publicity for researchers and institutions, but it does patients no favours.

"There's obviously a level of desperation," Coomber said. "I think people will believe what they wish to believe and there is a lot of wishful believing."

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