Ongoing research into dichloroacetate (DCA) looks promising for cancer patients

Dichloroacetate (DCA) is a buffered form of dichloroacetic acid, a chemical used in the production of other chemicals as well as the removal of warts and skin growths. DCA has previously been the focus of investigations into the treatment of metabolic diseases, but in 2007, it was found to have the ability to affect cancer growth. However, it is only a potential cancer drug because DCA may cause nerve and liver injury and potentially cause cancer in healthy tissue.

The early research

The 2007 Canadian study by Michelakis et al. found that rats who were supplied DCA in their drinking water had slower tumor growth. They also showed that DCA killed lung, brain (specifically glioblastoma), and breast cancer cells in culture without affecting healthy cells. A 2008 American study also found that DCA can induce apoptosis in endometrial cancer cells.

A 2010 study in Italy confirmed the ability of the drug to differentiate between healthy and cancer cells, and DCA slowed the growth of neuroblastoma cells. The same year, Michelakis et al. conducted a small clinical trial in five patients with brain tumors – tumor growth slowed in three patients, and apoptosis increased among cancer cells in general.

How DCA affects cancer cells

DCA targets the mitochondria of solid tumors. As outlined at Cancer Research UK, the drug activates the Krebs cycle, stimulating the mitochondria in cancer cells and leading them to undergo apoptosis. This was confirmed in the 2010 Italian study. However, other studies have shown that DCA combined with other anti-cancer drugs has the potential to kill cancer cells via oxidative damage or by inhibiting glycolysis. In addition, DCA can make cancer cells more sensitive to chemotherapy or radiation treatment, aiding in current approved cancer treatments. So the exact mechanism of action still needs confirmation.

Potential and current use

DCA is only available from doctors approved to do studies on the drug – the U.S. Food and Drug Administration previously reiterated that it is not an approved drug, so it is illegal for companies to sell the powder directly to consumers in the United States. DCA comes in a powder form mixed into food or drink, and dosage depends on the person’s weight. However, the chemical is more often used in industrial processes and only recently began being used for medical purposes.

A lot of research is still needed on the side effects of DCA in humans – researchers who work with the drug only have case reports on which to base the potential list of side effects. Lemmo Integrated Cancer Care, which has experience using DCA in some patients, reports numbness in the hands and feet as DCA affects the nervous system, tingling in the area of the tumor, and stomach irritation as common side effects. These have generally been reversible by ceasing the treatment, but the long-term effects are not known.

In their papers, all of the researchers have stressed the need for further research and testing before being able to recommend DCA as a cancer treatment. Though many people may think that any potential treatment should be available to patients as soon as it is identified, in 2010 Heidi Ledford of Nature quoted Michelakis, the author of the 2007 study that spurred DCA cancer research, as saying “If there is even a little bit of hope, should we be providing it to people? No, because there is a chance you might hurt them and make them even worse.”

Clinical trials are currently underway.