Bioethics Cancer Clinical trials Medicine

A family practitioner and epidemiologist are prescribing dichloracetate (DCA) in Canada

It never seems to end, does it?

I’m talking about the hype and questionable practices revolving around dichloroacetate (DCA), the small molecule chemotherapeutic agent that targets the Warburg effect, in essence normalizing the metabolism of tumor cells and thereby inhibiting their growth. (See here and here for more details.) A report by Evangelos Michelakis at the University of Alberta in Cancer Cell in January reported strong antitumor activity against a wide variety of tumors in rat tumor models resulted in a phenomenon ballooning out of control in a way that he could never have imagined. Even though DCA has never been tested in humans against cancer (although it has been tested against specific metabolic diseases), desperate cancer patients are seeking DCA from bootleg sources. This hysteria, even though there had not yet been any evidence that DCA had any antitumor activity in humans, was fueled mainly by the mystique applied to DCA because (1) it’s a small molecule, orally available drug; (2) a novel and interesting mechanism of activity; and, in my mind most importantly, (3) big pharma was not very interested in funding clinical trials to test it against cancer because the drug itself was not patented, leading to a lot of Internet and blogospheric hype about the “cure for cancer” being “suppressed” or “ignored’ by big pharma. I’ve written about this extensively since January, most recently about a week ago, and I had hoped to leave the topic alone for a while.

Then on Friday there was a new development. I managed to restrain myself from writing about it for the entire Memorial Day weekend, but that’s about all I can manage.

This time around, believe it or not, I won’t be primarily writing about The DCA Site, the website run by a pesticide dealer named Jim Tassano, who hired a chemist to make up some home brew DCA and sell it from his other website to dying cancer patients. Many of these patients populate forums of and tell stories that are either wishful thinking, tell tales of side effects, or border on downright quackery in which patients are told that they must “alkalinize their blood” to make DCA work. Unfortunately, I will be discussing a couple of other “entrepreneurs” who’ve decided to enter the DCA fray:

EDMONTON – A private cancer centre in Toronto is selling itself as the first in Canada to prescribe a possibly poisonous chemical to patients, even though the compound hasn’t been tested on humans and hasn’t been approved by Health Canada.

In February, wife-and-husband team Drs. Humaira and Akbar Khan heard how a University of Alberta researcher used dichloroacetate (DCA) to successfully shrink tumours in rats without damaging healthy cells. Last month, they offered the water-soluble powder to cancer patients in Ontario who have exhausted all other treatments.

They did so despite dire warnings from Edmonton’s Dr. Evangelos Michelakis that the chemical can be toxic and can cause imbalance, finger numbness and nerve damage.

“I agree with the warnings,” said Humaira Khan, a public health epidemiologist who focuses on research in Toronto’s Medicor Cancer Centres. The clinic opened one year ago and charges patients about $150 for one week’s supply of DCA.

“But at the end of the day, it comes down to patients’ rights. It comes to the patient’s choice. That was the philosophy and the motivation because patients come to us and say, ‘We know the risks. We understand it hasn’t been studied. I don’t have much to lose.’ ”

Khan said it’s better for her clinic to supervise patients instead of having them self-medicate, as hundreds around the world are doing after hearing about Michelakis’s research, published in the prestigious academic journal Cancer Cell.

And why do Drs. Khan and Khan want to do this? Why, they’re humanitarians, of course:

The paper sparked worldwide frenzy, with patients buying questionable DCA from unproven sources and reporting their outcomes in Internet chat rooms.

“We felt we needed to do it,” Khan said.

Her husband, a family physician with 13 years experience in palliative and cancer care, is the clinic’s medical director. “It didn’t seem ethically right to say no,” he said. “At the end of the day, even if we’ve saved one life, it’s worth it.”

“Didn’t seem ethically right to say no?” How about more like “didn’t seem financially right to say no”? And, of course, the Khans have, as all alternative medical practitioners do, testimonials:

One woman in her 70s, who almost died from chemotherapy, had a four-centimetre tumour on her shoulder that has disappeared.

One man could walk again after taking a strong dose of DCA. His nausea and severe pain also disappeared, even after he had to go off the treatment when he suffered side-effects. Some patients reported memory loss, stomach upset or tremors in their arms.

“Most of our patients have benefited from it,” Humaira Khan said.

“It’s hard to say how much of a benefit, but they are palliative patients and pretty much had nothing else to go on, so DCA has prolonged their life and given them a better quality of life. That gives us a lot of confidence.”

I’d be very interested in knowing exactly on what evidence they base this claim that DCA has prolonged the lives of patients. For one thing, it’s only been four months since DCA hit the blogosphere, and that’s not long enough to determine whether DCA actually extends patient survival, even in a well-designed clinical trial. In the unsupervised experimentation that’s going on right now, determining if DCA has actually prolonged the life of a cancer patient is virtually impossible in such a short period of time. It may even be close to impossible in any amount of time, because determination of survival requires comparison of patients taking DCA to a control group, plus enough time for differences in survival due to the drug to manifest themselves. Unless DCA is truly a miracle drug, which, alas, it is not (as I’ve documented below), such differences will not manifest themselves in the two or three months since Jim Tassano, for instance, started selling his home brew DCA. In any event, neither of the Drs. Khan are oncologists. Dr. Akbar Khan is a family practitioner who is clearly lacks the training to be prescribing chemotherapy and monitoring the progress of cancer patients. Yes, he does have experience in the palliative care of terminally ill cancer patients, but he doesn’t appear to have any experience in administering chemotherapeutics. His wife, Dr. Humaira Khan, is a physician with an MPH who’s primarily an epidemiologist. The clinic also employs a naturopath, a physiotherapist, a counselor, a massage therapist, a dietitian, and a pharmacist, among others, but apparently not a single oncologist.

Despite the lack of oncologists, this clinic, Medicor, this clinic actually offers the antiangiogenic drug Avastin™. They also offer a whole lot of woo, such as high dose vitamin C therapy, among others. They also offer a test called ChemoFit, which supposedly tests the tumor cells of cancer patients and informs them which chemotherapy will and won’t work. Using in vitro measurements of tumor cell response to chemotherapy is a line of research that has been fraught with problems and is far less useful than Medicor would have you believe. Indeed, I find it telling that, on the ChemFit website, several peer-reviewed papers supposedly supporting the efficacy of using in vitro tumor assay-guided therapy, but none that I could find in a search of PubMed supporting the use of the ChemoFit test itself. I have to say, I’d want some strong, specific evidence about the ChemoFit test itself and its ability to predict the chemosensitivity or chemoresistance of a patient’s tumor before I would consider actually using it to guide therapy, especially since the test is not cheap, costing $2,500, and, contrary to claims by the Khans, it is not “standard practice south of the border.”

But maybe Medicor really is being reasonable about DCA therapy. Let’s see what it has to say about DCA:

Medicor believes that is essential for clinical trials to be conducted with DCA as a cancer treatment. However, we are aware of many patients who are currently self-medicating with DCA, or are being treated with DCA under naturopathic care alone. Medicor is committed to helping cancer patients who request DCA treatment to receive it in the safest possible way.

We respect the patient’s right to choose their treatment once they know all the potential risks and benefits. All of our DCA patients understand that DCA is not yet scientifically proven as a cancer treatment.

There it is, not unexpectedly, the old “health freedom” gambit, beloved of purveyors of dubious “alternative therapies” and, apparently, just as useful to doctors selling an unproven drug outside the confines of a clinical trial. Of course, if they really are collecting hard data on patients taking an experimental anticancer chemotherapeutic, it could be argued that they are doing clinical research. If that’s the case, then, i wonder, are they getting valid informed consent from these patients? Do they have a valid protocol that could produce actual useful information about whether DCA has an anticancer effect against specific cancers? If they do, then why should they be able to do this sort of research without oversight by an IRB, or whatever Canada’s equivalent is? None of the employees of Medicor appears to have any relevant experience in running cancer clinical trials; given that, their supervision is probably only marginally better than the lack of supervision going on at The DCA Site.

Perhaps it’s just the nasty advocate in evidence-based medicine in me, but am I so off base to suspect that this is nothing more than a case of some alternative medicine “entrepreneurs” seeing an opportunity to make a buck and going after it? After all, when Medicor opened a year ago, it was custom-designed to provide “personalized care” (a.k.a. woo) to cancer patients who can pay for it:

A clinic set to open today is offering what its operators call a private-medicine first in Canada — intensive care, counseling and portable electronic health records specifically for fee-paying cancer patients.

The physician couple behind Medicor Cancer say they will provide the kind of comprehensive aid in dealing with the disease and the health care system that many cancer patients cannot get now.
Clients will have to pay at least $2,500, but the physicians say any medically necessary services will be charged to the medicare system, as legally required.

It is the latest twist in the growing field of private health care, and the Ontario government says it will watch the clinic closely to ensure it abides by the law.

The doctors opening Medicor say they would be happy to see the province pay for the sort of services they will offer. In the meantime, patients have a right to pay for them, they argue.

“If I’m sick and I want something, I don’t want the government to tell me what I can spend my money on,” said Dr. Humaira Kahn, a public-health physician and Medicor president. “If it’s my life or the life of someone I love, I want to be able to control what treatment I want, where I want it, whether I pay for it or not.”

“Is it fair that the system forces mediocrity on every citizen?” asked her husband, Dr. Akbar Kahn, the clinic’s medical director and a family physician.

Medicor will not provide actual cancer treatment such as chemotherapy, radiation or surgery.

More “health freedom” blather. You know, whenever you hear someone providing non-evidence-based treatments start invoking “health freedom,” it’s a pretty good indication that you should run, not walk out of their office, because almost invariably what they really want is freedom from accountability and the freedom from oversight. In any case, it appears that the Khans have changed their minds about actually treating cancer or providing chemotherapy. After all, Avastin is a chemotherapeutic agent. DCA is a chemotherapeutic agent, and an experimental one at that. In fact, one has to wonder, if the Khans aren’t providing any real anticancer therapy to patients, what exactly are they doing that’s worth $2,500 up front and a $1,200 monthly fee. Certainly a visit with a family practitioner, naturopath, and various other CAM practitioners, plus a PDA on which they can carry their personal medical record seems a bit thin gruel to be charging this sort of money for. True, they claim that patients can see them through the Canadian medicare system, but state in their brochure that their fee-based services are intimately related to their medicare-covered services to the point that “doctors can’t separate them.”

I have to wonder if perhaps the alternative medicine business isn’t working out quite as well as hoped, given how little service Medicor appears to provide for a rather significant fee. Maybe the Khans needed a new angle to attract patients. Thanks to DCA, apparently they’ve found it. Dr. Khan could do more for his patients going back to the palliative care that he used to provide before he thought of Medicore and especially before he decided to jump on the DCA bandwagon.

All Orac posts on DCA:

  1. In which my words will be misinterpreted as “proof” that I am a “pharma shill”
  2. Will donations fund dichloroacetate (DCA) clinical trials?
  3. Too fast to label others as “conspiracy-mongers”?
  4. Dichloroacetate: One more time…
  5. Laying the cluestick on DaveScot over dichloroacetate (DCA) and cancer
  6. A couple of more cluesticks on dichloroacetate (DCA) and cancer
  7. Where to buy dichloroacetate (DCA)? Dichloroacetate suppliers, even?
  8. An uninformative “experiment” on dichloroacetate
  9. Slumming around The DCA Site (, appalled at what I’m finding
  10. Slumming around The DCA Site (, the finale (for now)
  11. It’s nice to be noticed
  12. The deadly deviousness of the cancer cell, or how dichloroacetate (DCA) might fail
  13. The dichloroacetate (DCA) self-medication phenomenon hits the mainstream media
  14. Dichloroacetate (DCA) and cancer: Magical thinking versus Tumor Biology 101
  15. Checking in with The DCA Site
  16. Dichloroacetate and The DCA Site: A low bar for “success”
  17. Dichloroacetate (DCA): A scientist’s worst nightmare?
  18. Dichloroacetate and The DCA Site: A low bar for “success” (part 2)
  19. “Clinical research” on dichloroacetate by A travesty of science
  20. A family practitioner and epidemiologist are prescribing dichloracetate (DCA) in Canada
  21. An “arrogant medico” makes one last comment on dichloroacetate (DCA)

Posts by fellow ScienceBlogger Abel Pharmboy:

  1. The dichloroacetate (DCA) cancer kerfuffle
  2. Where to buy dichloroacetate…
  3. Local look at dichloroacetate (DCA) hysteria
  4. Edmonton pharmacist asked to stop selling dichloroacetate (DCA)
  5. Four days, four dichloroacetate (DCA) newspaper articles
  6. Perversion of good science
  7. CBC’s ‘The Current’ on dichloroacetate (DCA)

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

Comments are closed.


Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading