Skip to main content

In December of 1985, a 70-year-old man developed cancer of the kidney. Shortly after surgery to remove it, doctors found it had spread to his lungs, liver and lymph nodes. Instead of undergoing the standard chemotherapy, he decided to follow a treatment path out of the ordinary.

He went to see Dr. Hugh Riordan in Wichita, Kan., who gave him high doses (30 grams) of vitamin C intravenously twice a week. Six weeks later, the cancer in his lungs was already showing improvement, and the vitamin C treatments were continued for almost two years. Ten years after starting vitamin C, there was no trace of cancer in his kidneys, lungs, liver or lymph nodes. He died at 82, cancer-free, 12 years after diagnosis.

Whether high-dose vitamin C was responsible for such dramatic improvement or whether this case was one of spontaneous healing will never be known. Dr. Riordan claims similar success in hundreds of cases. He has been using vitamin C as a cancer treatment, usually in combination with conventional measures, for 23 years, in patients from 40 countries, including Canada. "Vitamin C in high enough doses kills cancer cells," said a confident Dr. Riordan.

But history has not been kind to vitamin C, and it is largely considered an untested, quackish treatment in cancer. That attitude may be about to change, as recent articles in the medical literature insist vitamin C has been overlooked for too long and should be taken seriously by mainstream medicine.

Vitamin C has been floated, not just as a cancer therapy, but as a possible treatment for the common cold, mononucleosis, dementia, heart disease and stroke.

Our bodies do need vitamin C to stay healthy -- the recommended dietary allowance in Canada was recently increased to 75 milligrams a day for men and 90 for women, up from a previous RDA of 60 milligrams.

And just a few weeks ago, a new study published in The Lancet medical journal showed vitamin C intake had a life-prolonging, disease-busting effect. Researchers took blood samples from 20,000 people aged 45 to 79, and then monitored their health over four years. The risk of death from all causes during the study was cut in half for people who had the highest levels of vitamin C in their blood.

But much less clear is the extent to which large doses of vitamin C can reverse illnesses once they start. Funding for trials is hard to find because vitamin C cannot be patented.

During the 1970s and early 1980s, vitamin C swung in and out of favour on the strength of various studies. In 1974, Scottish doctors Ewan Cameron and Allan Campbell published results of a trial showing vitamin C had astonishing powers against cancer. They gave intravenous vitamin C to 50 advanced cancer patients. In 12 of them, the tumours either stopped progressing, shrank or were completely eradicated. The results of the study were met by the scientific community with silence.

Then, in the late 1970s, two-time Nobel laureate Linus Pauling, vitamin C's most energetic proponent until his death in 1994, and Dr. Cameron completed another positive study, showing longer survival times in cancer patients treated with vitamin C than those not given the vitamin.

Contradicting these positive findings were the results from two studies done at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., in the late 1970s and early 1980s, both of which showed vitamin C was not an effective cancer treatment. Those negative trials 20 years ago have served to keep vitamin C research on the shelf, far from the mainstream, percolating quietly in places like the Centre for Improvement of Human Functioning in Wichita, where Dr. Riordan works.

What researchers didn't know two decades ago was that vitamin C given orally -- as it was in the Mayo Clinic studies -- is not nearly as potent as when it is injected intravenously.

When it is given orally, any vitamin C in excess of basic needs is quickly excreted in the urine. With intravenous injections, however, it has a chance to accumulated in the body's tissues.

"You can get concentrations 100 times higher with IV, but no one picked up on that," said Dr. Mark Levine, senior staff physician at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Md., who would like to see IV vitamin C's effect in cancer rigorously studied. "The light bulb went off in the last year or so, and now we know those concentrations can kill tumour cells in the lab."

Studies by Dr. Levine and other scientists have shown that vitamin C is not toxic, even when given in extremely high doses (10,000 to 20,000 mg per day). However, some researchers theorize that too much vitamin C may interfere with certain laboratory tests, as well as chemotherapy or radiation. Further studies of side effects are therefore necessary.

Vitamin C may be about to step off the shelf and back into the sunshine.

Last year, McGill University in Montreal hosted a research workshop, co-organized by the U.S. National Institutes of Health Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, to explore alternative cancer treatments, and vitamin C arose as a promising source of study. "There is a new climate by which another look may take place," said Dr. L. John Hoffer, a professor of medicine at McGill University.

Dr. Hoffer and Dr. Levine both wrote articles this year in the Canadian Medical Association Journal calling for further study of vitamin C in cancer. Dr. Hoffer, particularly, has an emotional attachment to the issue. His father, Dr. Abram Hoffer, a physician in Victoria, was a close friend of Dr. Pauling. As a premed student growing up in Saskatchewan, the younger Dr. Hoffer remembers walking into his father's study, where some of Dr. Pauling's papers were sitting on the desk. "I wandered in, sat down, read these. They blew me away. They haven't lost that impact on me."

New accolades for vitamin C could change Dr. Pauling's status in the history books. When he died of cancer at 93, he was still being scorned by the medical establishment for his theory that megadoses of vitamin C could fight disease and weren't toxic. "I thought he got a bad deal," said Dr. Hoffer. At the Linus Pauling Institute in Corvallis, Ore., research continues in the use of vitamins to treat disease.

Besides cancer, vitamin C has long been touted as a treatment for the common cold. Dr. Harri Hemila from the department of public health at the University of Helsinki in Finland, has synthesized the available data in the medical literature on vitamin C and its effect on the common cold. He found that taking at least one gram a day of vitamin C from the time a cold starts reduces the length and severity of the cold by an average of 23 per cent, and that higher doses (up to 6 grams a day) are more effective than lower doses. "I think it is worthwhile to try taking vitamin C early when the cold symptoms are starting," he said. "If the person does not find any benefit I see no reason to take vitamin C next time."

Meanwhile, new research is under way on vitamin C's possible effect in reducing brain damage caused by strokes.

Dr. Kelly Drew, a neuroscientist at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is studying -- of all things -- the arctic ground squirrel and why its brain does not get damaged during hibernation. When the squirrel hibernates, there is a marked reduction in the flow of blood to its brain, enough that it should cause damage, the way a stroke does in humans.

The key to why hibernation doesn't result in brain damage may be vitamin C. Squirrels and other animals produce vitamin C while humans don't. Dr. Drew has found that the blood of hibernating ground squirrels has four times more vitamin C than when they are not hibernating. If she finds out that the vitamin C is protecting the squirrels' brains, then it is possible that vitamin C given to humans may do the same thing.

After people suffer from strokes, for example, they usually continue to lose brain cells for up to a week. Dr. Drew believes that intravenous injection of vitamin C right after a stroke might protect against further destruction in the brain.

"I really do think vitamin C could have a protective role in treating stroke patients," she said. She is hoping her animal studies, funded by the U.S. National Institute of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke, will encourage large-scale clinical trials of vitamin C in stroke patients.

For now, vitamin C research -- from Fairbanks to Wichita, Montreal to Helsinki --bubbles quietly below the surface of mainstream medicine. But soon it may burst onto the medical scene and everyone will wonder why it took so long. As Dr. Drew puts it, all the vitamin C research "is hard to ignore."

The A-Z of C

Humans need vitamin C for health, but our bodies -- unlike those of most animals -- don't produce it. We get it from the food we eat.

Vitamin C plays a crucial role in activating certain enzymes in the body, which in turn cause necessary chemical reactions. It is important for the development of healthy bones, teeth, gums, ligaments and blood vessels and helps nerve cells send their messages throughout the body. Vitamin C also helps the immune system fight disease and aids in wound healing. Severe deficiency of vitamin C, which is rare, can cause scurvy or anemia.

While studies are being done on vitamin C's possible effects against cancer, the common cold, stroke, heart disease and dementia, it is recommended that people include at least five servings of fruit and vegetables in their daily diet to ensure they receive the known health benefits of vitamin C. "Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, preferably fresh," says Dr. Mark Levine, senior staff physician at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

The common fruits highest in vitamin C are watermelon, grapefruit, oranges, kiwi, melon, mango and various berries. Vegetables with the highest vitamin C punch are green and red peppers, broccoli, kale, sweet potato, Brussels sprouts, baked potato with skin and cauliflower. -- Celia Milne