How Does Vitamin C Work To Fight Cancer?

cancer cell spider

At San Francisco Natural Medicine, intravenous nutritional therapy (IVNT) is one of our most useful and popular therapies. Our doctors use IVNT to replenish nutrients in people with chronic illness or absorption problems, to support and strengthen the immune response, to help fight infection, to support people with cancer and a host of other health issues and concerns.

One of the most common formulas we use is high-dose vitamin C (HDIVC). Mixed with a few other minerals and at times B-Vitamins, these IVs contain large amounts of vitamin C, ranging from 10 grams to up to 100 grams, which have therapeutic effects that are unobtainable using oral doses. HDIVC is useful in a number of health conditions, but by far the most common application is supporting people who are fighting cancer to provide immune support as well as its observed anti-cancer effects.

One of our challenges in providing this treatment is concern by doctors and patients that HDIVC will interfere with conventional treatments such as chemotherapy, as a number of these drugs often do not mix well with antioxidants including vitamin C. While there are a few examples of this, the majority of studies have shown that the addition of HDIVC actually supports the action of many chemotherapy drugs as they share similar “mechanisms of action” and have a positive synergistic effect, supporting each other in increasing treatment effectiveness.

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Is vitamin C an anti-oxidant or a pro-oxidant?

As noted above, some studies have shown that taking antioxidants can interfere with conventional cancer treatments, and vitamin C is often touted for its effectiveness as an antioxidant. So, if vitamin C is an antioxidant, how can it be supportive of conventional care? One reason is that when a large amount of vitamin C is infused over a relatively short period of time (1-3 hours), it stops acting as an antioxidant and “flips” to become a pro-oxidant. It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George Costanza, a failure in life, starts doing everything the opposite of how he would normally do things and instantly becomes successful.

How does vitamin C work to fight cancer?

Research has yet to help us fully understand the actions of vitamin C on cancer cells. There are a number of researchers who are studying the effects of vitamin C and cancer and preliminary studies suggest that when cancer cells are exposed to high levels of vitamin C, it interacts with iron in these cancer cells and causes cell damage or death. Without getting too technical, it appears that vitamin C takes advantage of low cancer cell catalase levels which protect healthy cells from oxidative damage. Because cancer cells don’t have enough catalase, they are therefore more susceptible to damage, especially when combined with chemotherapy or radiation.This is the reason these same effects are not seen in healthy noncancerous cells.

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I have been tracking this research with great interest, and thus was intrigued by this research summary I found in Science News from a study published in the journal Cancer Cell on March 30, 2017: "Clinical trials found that it is safe to regularly infuse brain and lung cancer patients with 800-1,000 times the daily recommended amount of vitamin C as a potential strategy to improve outcomes of standard cancer treatments. The researchers also show pathways by which altered iron metabolism in cancer cells, and not normal cells, lead to increased sensitivity to cancer cell killing caused by high dose vitamin C.”

The article goes on to note that cancer cells have a "metabolic frailty" that allows vitamin C and molecules with similar action to sensitize the cancer cells to radiation and chemotherapy by damaging their DNA. The study found that HDIVC treatments were relatively safe with no toxicity to healthy cells and well-tolerated by patients, with the only side effects noted being dry mouth and more trips to the bathroom.

Studies on HDIVC and cancer

scientists looking through microscope

Studies so far on HDIVC and cancer are small, preliminary studies, and researchers and doctors agree that we need to look more closely at the role of vitamin C and cancer. Now that the safety of this therapy is better understood, the stage is set for phase II clinical trials to see if vitamin C is effective at extending overall lifespan and quality of life for patients undergoing chemotherapy and radiation.

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A number of well controlled studies have been done at this point, some from my alma mater Bastyr University at its Integrative Oncology Research Center (BIORC) under the guidance of Dr. Leanna Standish and Dr. Paul Anderson. SFNM's Dr. Katie Strobe gained valuable experience working as part of the BIORC team. The BIORC data as well as other research suggests that outcomes improve in patients who use an integrative approach to their care, including longer life spans and improved quality of life measures. Simply put, while it is not a “sure cure” people tend to live longer and feel better.

How do costs compare?

Here’s a quote from the Science News article: "The cost per patient . . . for vitamin C . . . protocol is approximately $8,000 spread over 9 months of test infusions. This cost can be less than a single dose of some immunotherapy and/or chemotherapy drugs."

So why isn’t more research being done? One simple reason is it costs many millions of dollars to fund large scale clinical trials. It can easily take $100 million to bring a drug to market. Drug companies do this as they research and investigate novel new drugs that they can patent. When studies are positive and a drug is approved, the companies can make a lot of money for their investment in research. But vitamin C is a naturally occurring chemical (ascorbic acid) and it cannot be patented, thus large costly studies are a poor investment. That leaves universities and government funding to take the lead in studying vitamin C as well as many other natural products. Fortunately, there are a number of university-associated research centers that are moving our knowledge forward on the use of vitamin C in cancer treatment and prevention.

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The doctors at SFNM support an integrative approach to cancer care and we will continue to monitor research like this so we can better serve our patients using the latest research findings.

Dr. Carl Hangee-Bauer

Dr. Carl Hangee-Bauer is SFNM’s founder and Clinic Director. He has a general naturopathic medical practice and specializes in immune support for allergies, autoimmunity and cancer support, functional gastroenterology and pain management. He has over 30 years of clinical experience using individualized care and treatment plans to provide effective naturopathic based care.