I’m Back (Re-Redux)

This is, if I haven’t lost count, the third time I’ve had to take an extended hiatus from blogging, and the second time for a surgery. I now have screws, pins, and pieces a dead guy’s hip in my back. So, once again, I apologize for my body’s noncooperation.

Yesterday, I woke up to the news that Al Gore had won the Nobel Prize. Since I can’t add anything to his speech and Stockholm’s decision other than “Yay!”, “Take that, Bush!”, and “Damn, I wish he’d run!”, this post is not about him. Instead, I’m ranting about something a little less time-sensitive.

Our debate team prepares briefs on probable topics in advance, since it’s a pain to try to look up information on, say, the inner workings of Myanmar’s government in the 10 minutes we have to prepare. We generally send these to each other on the listserve, and I got one just yesterday. The topic: “The FDA should approve MGN-3 for use by cancer patients as a treatment of their cancer.” Since I’d never heard of MGN-3 and I’m a little skeptical of “alternative medicines” to begin with, I decided to do a little checking. Since the only source she had (other than the ACS for some background statistics) was a site called Alternative Cancer Treatments Comparison and Testing. I pulled it up, and, voilà, the most perfect example of snake-oil salesmanship since Karl Rove brought us the Compassionate Conservative.

This site purports to give information on “alternative” cancer treatments, including MGN-3, shark cartilage/oil, megavitamin therapy, Cancell, Pawpaw, and an “alkalizing diet,” along with polemics against the FDA, AMA, and sane people in general. Since the absurdity of AlternaiveCancer.us (AC from now on) is so vast, I will deal with it in three posts. Today’s is about a couple of the treatments it recommends, and I’ll follow up with a larger analysis of the site (and the product it sells) and a piece on alternative medicine in general.

First up, MGN-3:
MGN-3 is, to quote my debate colleague, “made from Rice Bran, enzymatically treated with polysaccharides from Shitake, Kawaratake, and Surehrotake mushrooms.” So far, a little unconventional and New-Agey, but nothing particularly suspicious yet. AC claims that “MGN-3 increases the production of NK cells and continues to keep the NK cell level elevated until use is halted. It also enhances B-cell and T-cell activity.”* Once again, nothing particularly suspicious. “MGN-3…increases gamma interferon and tumor necrosis factor-alpha.” Here we run into problems. Interferon therapy is part of conventional medicine, so no problem there. TNF, however is not. In fact, increased TNF has been linked to an increased risk of many diseases. Including cancer. Strike one.

What about some studies? Well, there was one. That showed that mice and a few cancer pacients given MGN had increased NK levels. However, no one has successfully repeated the experiment (strike two, and enough to ditch it in science), and there are a few problems with the researcher. Aside from the fact that he has a direct financial stake in the compound (he patented it), he has a tendency to overstate the data, to put it mildly. Recall that the only thing his published study showed was increased NK levels in mice and a few humans. Well, on the website of the company that manufactures MGN-3, he said that “MGN-3 will boost natural killer cell activity to destroy any remaining abnormal cells after surgery or adjuvant treatments.” Neither he nor anyone else has conducted studies to determine whether MGN-3 is actually effective against tumors. Strike three, and MGN’s out.

Next up, megavitamin therapy:
Megavitamin therapy, also called “orthomolecular therapy,” is not your average multivitamin. Megavitamin gurus insist that we somehow need many times more vitamins than the FDA recommends (and, crucially, so much that we have to buy supplements from them rather than just eating more healthy foods). Megavitamins’ purported benefits are quickly dismissed; every (peer-reviewed) study has found that such enormous doses give no benefits, and, contrary to the gurus’ claims, very few people in America are deficient in any vitamin other than D**. Strikes one and two. Now, this would be relatively benign (if you can call fraud “benign”), except for the particular vitamins that proponents recommend.

There is, of course, the “panacea” hawked by so many, vitamin C. Taking too much of this will give you an upset stomach. The others recommended by AC, vitamins A and D,  however, are extremely toxic in such high amounts. A and D are both fat-soluble vitamins, meaning that they will not be excreted in urine when you consume a large dose. Rather, they are stored in the liver, and slowly released. When large amounts of fat-soluble vitamins are taken over a period of time, the vitamins build up, causing problems such as fever, insomnia, fatigue, weight loss, bone fractures, and anemia (vitamin A), and bone loss and renal failure (vitamin D)***.

“Vitamin” B17 is an entirely different matter. Not only is it not a vitamin (its proper name is laevo-mandelonitrile-beta-glucuronoside) certain enzymes break it down into glucose, benzaldehyde (the chemical that gives almonds their distinct smell), and cyanide. In fact, before the FDA started prosecuting manufacturers and vendors of B17, at least one young man died from it, suffering classic signs of cyanide poisoning.

The final treatment I’ll look at is shark cartilage:
The use of shark cartilage in the treatment of cancer goes back centuries to the Polynesian of the small island Krackpotatoa…okay, that was complete fantasy (and a very bad pun). In fact, it goes back to 1992, to a book by William Lane called Sharks Don’t Get Cancer. Except, sharks do get cancer. Thirty-four kinds. Including in their cartilage. There’s also the small problem that eating something that doesn’t get cancer to cure cancer is somewhat like eating goat testicles to become more sexually potent.****

As a final note, every thing here that isn’t cited is either from Wikipedia (and backtracked sources) or Quackwatch (which is an interesting read, by the way).

*NK cells, or natural killer cells, are specialized white blood cells that are cytotoxic, that is, they attack tumors and cells infected by viruses so that the cancer or infection does not spread. B cells produce antibodies, and T cells do many things in the immune system, including secreting proteins, preserving immunity, and attacking infected cells like NK cells. It has not been established that NK cells, B cells, or T cells actually prevent or attack cancer in vivo.

**This is because Vitamin D does not absorb well into the digestive system, and we cannot produce it ourselves without sunlight. So those of us who live in temperate zones and don’t drink much milk (guilty) may need supplements.

***Yes, the same vitamin D that helps you “maintain healthy bones.” Too much of anything is toxic.

****It is true that shark cartilage has been shown to have a small antiangiogenesis effect in vitro. However, when you eat shark cartilage, it is broken down into individual amino acids, completely obliterating any effect that the cartilage might have on a tumor.

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