Long before his death in 1970, German scientist Dr. Otto Warburg was considered one of the greatest biochemists of the 20th century. His research provided some of the first insights into cellular respiration, photosynthesis, and the origins of cancer.
In 1931, he won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his work. It seemed like he was set up for a world-changing career.
But that all changed in 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA and ushered in the age of molecular biology. .
With this new development, researchers were soon convinced that genes were the key to defeating cancer and that genetic mutations forced cells to divide and multiply relentlessly.
Aside from that, mainstream medicine glommed onto the strategy of killing cancer cells with chemotherapy, radiation and surgery rather than identifying and curing the underlying root causes of cancer.
Dr. Warburg’s theories were largely forgotten. Until now. . .
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The strategy of treating cancer by killing cancer cells has been a failure, because cancer stem cells survive these therapies and the disease almost always returns. These treatments work only for certain early-stage (and usually non-aggressive) cancers where it really IS possible to kill every cancer cell.
As for the gene-mutation theory – the only “root cause” cancer theory in which mainstream medicine has shown any interest – hundreds of billions of research dollars have produced almost nothing.
So here we are, more than 60 years later with cancer diagnoses continuing to rise. While we certainly know a lot more about cancer genetics, we’re no closer to a cure.
Were Dr. Warburg’s theories the key all along? I’ll give you a simple answer: Yes. And – of all people – Dr. James Watson now agrees.
Today’s generation of scientists are digging back in to cancer metabolism to find out…
The Warburg effect and how cancer creates energy
Healthy cells need oxygen for energy and replication. They’re aerobic cells.
While studying sea urchin eggs in the 1920s, Otto Warburg was the first to discover that cancer cells are the exact opposite. In cancer cells, the aerobic or normal form of energy production has failed, and the cells are forced to fall back on “Plan B”: producing energy by fermentation, specifically fermentation of sugar.
When cells begin to ferment glucose (blood sugar) instead of using oxygen to burn glucose, it’s called the Warburg effect, aptly named, and it’s present in about four out of five of all cancers.
He had evidence that cells start going crazy for sugar because their mitochondria — cellular “batteries” or “energy factories” — get so damaged they can’t use oxygen anymore.
Altered metabolism is now known to be one of the hallmarks of cancer.
Cancer’s voracious appetite for sugar is the reason that the positron emission tomography (PET) scan is the best existing test to locate and diagnose cancer. We know cancer needs massive quantities of sugar, far more than healthy cells that oxidize sugar. This is not in dispute.
In a PET scan, sugar molecules are tagged with a radioactive marker. The sugar molecules then concentrate in much higher density in cancer cells than in healthy cells, and the bright spots of radioactivity are easy to see on the scan. Voila, the doctor can see what parts of the body have cancer.
Dr. Warburg believed the change from the aerobic to the anaerobic or fermentation type of metabolism was the cause of cancer.
Connecting cellular metabolism and molecular biology
Dr. Warburg’s research is the cornerstone of cancer diagnosis and, increasingly, it’s the cornerstone of cancer treatment, at least among knowledgeable doctors. Cancer cell metabolism differs from healthy cell metabolism, and this difference has become the most effective avenue to treatment.
This approach is simply more effective than the gene-mutation approach of trying to find and treat broken DNA. One problem is that there are hundreds of thousands of gene mutations and it’s impossible to treat this riot of dysfunction.
Researchers thought they could find “the” mutation, or a few mutations, that “caused” cancer. And that’s where most of the research money has gone for decades. Instead they found more mutations than they could count.
The other problem is that – although this isn’t absolutely confirmed yet – it’s most likely that cancer originates in the mitochondria, NOT in the genes. That is, cancer is a metabolic or mitochondrial disease at its very heart, and genes are just a sideshow.
The DNA probably gets damaged by the toxic byproducts of the sick mitochonrdria. These deadly byproducts account for the “acid bath” that surrounds cancer tumors.
The gene approach may have produced
one useful bit of knowledge…
Mainstream molecular biologists – ever obsessed with genes — have been searching for the missing link between Warburg’s discovery and what we understand today about gene mutation.
This group more or less concedes that the problem is with mitochondria but they think a genetic defect is causing the mitochondrial malfunction. So they’ve been looking for genes that control cell division and regulate nutrient consumption.
They did find the gene AKT … which creates a chain of signaling proteins that play a prominent role in cell division. When this chain is mutated, it causes the cell to disregard signals to stop eating… and instead go on a glucose-eating rampage.
Though it sounds scary, there’s good news.
Once AKT is activated, these new cancer cells are dependent on glucose for energy. So if you remove sugar completely, they’re far more prone to automatic cell death.1
Regardless of this genetic discovery and many others like it, many researchers, including molecular biologist James Watson, now think that Dr. Warburg was right:
Cellular metabolism is the root cause of cancer — and while there are secondary causes and influences in growth, targeting metabolism first will yield greater results than starting with the gene mutation.
Dr. Watson was quoted in a New York Times article about the Warburg revival that “locating the genes that cause cancer has been remarkably unhelpful.” And if he was going into cancer research today, he “would study biochemistry rather than molecular biology.” 2
Overall, sequencing DNA to find the cause of cancer was “unhelpful” because there can be many kinds of gene mutations in a single cancer. In fact, researchers have found no consistency in gene mutations from tumor to tumor.
For example, commonly cited oncogene p53 is only present in half of tumors.3 And scientists still aren’t sure if the expression of “metabolic master” oncogene myc causes metabolic changes or is a result of metabolic changes.4
The story seems to be the same with thousands of other enzymes, proteins, and genes… where the line between overexpression, suppression, and tumor formation is very thin.
But there are only a few, limited ways human cells can use energy…
And cancer cells use fuel in distinctly different ways than healthy cells, every single time.
It may turn out that altered metabolism is not the one and only cause of cancer, but it provides an easy target for cancer treatment. Metabolic dysfunction is something we can see, understand and change now.
A high-sugar diet and elevated insulin levels
feed cancer cells
There’s no questioning the strong link between the standard American diet (SAD) – with its massive consumption of sugar and other refined carbs – and our deadly rates of obesity, diabetes, inflammation, and cancer.
Dr. James Watson said in the New York Times article, “I think there’s no doubt that insulin is pro-cancer.”
The standard American diet of processed foods, simple carbohydrates and sugar causes permanently elevated insulin levels, which in turn cause the insulin signaling pathways to go haywire.
This can also trigger the Warburg effect and cause cells to feed on sugar and grow uncontrollably.
In fact, metformin, a common drug used to lower blood glucose and insulin levels in people with diabetes, has been shown to reduce the risk of developing cancer in its users.5
I wouldn’t be surprised if Big Pharma used this to multiply their sales and start selling metformin as a cancer prevention drug in the future …
But as a Cancer Defeated reader, you know it’s far better to take matters into your own hands now by adjusting your diet and starving cancer cells before they have the chance to grow.
Ketogenic diet may be the key to starving cancer
I’m convinced: Cancer feeds on glucose. So the best way to fight it is to starve it out.
That means you need to reduce your sugar intake and lower your insulin levels to keep cancer cells from thriving.
I don’t think a totally non-carbohydrate diet is sustainable for most people for years on end. But eat the lowest levels of carbs you can tolerate, and make sure the carbs you do eat are not high-glycemic “white foods” like sugar, rice, wheat products and potatoes.
These foods almost immediately turn to sugar in your body and spike your blood sugar and insulin levels.
Instead, train your body to use fat for energy with a diet high in healthy fats (also called a ketogenic, or “keto” diet).
When you’re a “fat burner” instead of a “sugar burner,” your body burns fat for energy instead of glucose. This has the added benefit of lowering body fat content in addition to limiting the fuel for cancer cells.
The traditional keto diet also recommends between 40 and 60 grams of protein per day… though I think this is low. Most people need 1 – 1.5g of protein per pound of bodyweight, depending on your goals (building muscle, maintaining muscle, and/or losing fat.)*
Protein does raise your blood sugar and cause an insulin response, but not nearly as much as processed carbs. Healthy fats from nuts, coconut oil, avocado and olive oil have little to no impact on blood sugar.
Here are other foods to eat, not only to keep your blood sugar low but also to flood your body with healthy nutrients:
- Organic fruits and vegetables
- High-fiber foods like chia seeds, root and cruciferous veggies and some berries
- Protein from grass-fed meats, beans and pasture-raised eggs
- Alkalizing foods like ginger, lemon, apple cider vinegar, and “specialty” greens like chlorella
Of course, this isn’t news if you’ve been reading Cancer Defeated for any length of time. The science behind the kind of diet I’ve been promoting keeps stacking up, proving that diet and lifestyle have a profound impact on cancer risk.
Getting cancer isn’t always “bad luck” or “bad genes” or another fatalistic excuse. You CAN take an active role in reducing your risk of developing cancer.
You hold your health in your hands. You have a choice.
And that’s encouraging news.
* Use this calculator to see how much protein you should eat: