Can Vitamin C Fight the Big C?

Once upon a time, there lived a chemist named Linus Pauling. He was a great man and the founder of several fancy, scientifical-type fields including quantum chemistry and molecular biology. Thanks to his hard work and big brain, he won a couple of Nobel Prizes—one for chemistry and another for peace activism. In other words, in addition to being one of the world’s greatest scientific minds, Linus Pauling was sort of a hippy.

In the seventies and eighties, Pauling became fixated on vitamin C, even writing two books on the topic, Vitamin C and the Common Cold and Cancer and Vitamin C. The second book was largely based on his research showing that megadoses of vitamin C increased the survival rate of terminal cancer patients. Unfortunately, researchers at the Mayo Clinic tried to recreate his findings and failed. This resulted in a very public bitch slapping session between Linus and the Clinic. Pauling lost, his cancer research was discredited, and the mainstream scientific community branded vitamin C cancer research as hippy science (see: Noble Peace Prize).

Pauling died of prostate cancer in 1994, which is admittedly ironic, but he lived to the ripe old age of 94, so it’s hard to contest that he knew a thing or two about longevity. Despite the whole vitamin C thing, the world still regarded him as an awesome scientist and it’s just a matter of time before HBO makes a biopic about him, given he bears a striking resemblance to British actor Jim Broadbent.

That was the end of the Linus Pauling’s Excellent Vitamin C Adventure–until last week, that is, when researchers at the University of Kansas released data showing that vitamin C not only made cancer drugs more effective in mice, but also helped human cancer patients cope with the toxic side effects of chemotherapy. It looks like Big Science threw the therapeutic baby out with the validation bathwater when they beat down ol’ Linus.

But don’t get too excited. Odds are that this breakthrough news will probably fade away like so many science-based press releases do. Vitamin C may have now lost its spacey stigma, but you can’t pull much of a profit selling ascorbic acid, so why would the pharmaceutical industry, who bankroll most medical research, bother paying to investigate it further? In other words, it may make people better, but it doesn’t make money, so there probably won’t be much properly-funded follow-up research.

(Note: I’d love to be proven wrong here. If you’re from Big Pharma and you’re reading this, please, please, please write in telling me about all the wonderful vitamin C research you’re doing!)

Sadly, this is a pretty common occurrence. Holistic medical fixes aren’t usually big earners, so Big Pharma doesn’t seem too interested. In Patrick Holford’s book, New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, he discusses the link between excessive homocysteine and Alzheimer’s. Homocysteine is an amino acid that’s part of a hormone-creating process called methylation. When the process breaks down, the body is stuck with excess homocysteine–and that appears to be connected to a number of mental health issues. It’s generally believed that this issue can be fixed with proper folate and B12 supplementation, but you’re not going to see massive research on this because, according to Holford, “the discovery of the homocysteine link will ultimately be bad news for the pharmaceutical industry’s profits from potentially competitive drugs.”

Do I think vitamin C will cure cancer and folate will cure Alzheimer’s? Probably not on their own. But I definitely think they deserve gobs of investigation. I hope the mainstream scientific community realizes this because, as the Ballad of Linus Pauling teaches us, sometimes the hippies know what they’re talking about.