The University of Alberta Discovery
UPDATE March 15, 2007
DCA is an odourless, colourless, inexpensive, relatively non-toxic, small molecule. And researchers at the University of Alberta believe it may soon be used as an effective treatment for many forms of cancer.
Dr. Evangelos Michelakis, a professor at the U of A Department of Medicine, has shown that dichloroacetate (DCA) causes regression in several cancers, including lung, breast, and brain tumors.
Michelakis and his colleagues, including post-doctoral fellow Dr. Sebastian Bonnet, have published the results of their research in the journal Cancer Cell.
Scientists and doctors have used DCA for decades to treat children with inborn errors of metabolism due to mitochondrial diseases. Mitochondria, the energy producing units in cells, have been connected with cancer since the 1930s, when researchers first noticed that these organelles dysfunction when cancer is present.
Until recently, researchers believed that cancer-affected mitochondria are permanently damaged and that this damage is the result, not the cause, of the cancer. But Michelakis, a cardiologist, questioned this belief and began testing DCA, which activates a critical mitochondrial enzyme, as a way to "revive" cancer-affected mitochondria.
The results astounded him.
Michelakis and his colleagues found that DCA normalized the mitochondrial function in many cancers, showing that their function was actively suppressed by the cancer but was not permanently damaged by it.
More importantly, they found that the normalization of mitochondrial function resulted in a significant decrease in tumor growth both in test tubes and in animal models. Also, they noted that DCA, unlike most currently used chemotherapies, did not have any effects on normal, non-cancerous tissues.
"I think DCA can be selective for cancer because it attacks a fundamental process in cancer development that is unique to cancer cells," Michelakis said. "One of the really exciting things about this compound is that it might be able to treat many different forms of cancer”.
Another encouraging thing about DCA is that, being so small, it is easily absorbed in the body, and, after oral intake, it can reach areas in the body that other drugs cannot, making it possible to treat brain cancers, for example.
Also, because DCA has been used in both healthy people and sick patients with mitochondrial diseases, researchers already know that it is a relatively non-toxic molecule that can be immediately tested patients with cancer.
”The results are intriguing because they point to the critical role that mitochondria play: they impart a unique trait to cancer cells that can be exploited for cancer therapy”
Director University of Massachusetts Cancer Center
Investing in Research
The DCA compound is not patented and not owned by any pharmaceutical company, and, therefore, would likely be an inexpensive drug to administer, says Michelakis, the Canada Research Chair in Pulmonary Hypertension and Director of the Pulmonary Hypertension Program with Capital Health, one of Canada’s largest health authorities.
However, as DCA is not patented, Michelakis is concerned that it may be difficult to find funding from private investors to test DCA in clinical trials. He is grateful for the support he has already received from publicly funded agencies, such as the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR), and he is hopeful such support will continue and allow him to conduct clinical trials of DCA on cancer patients.
Michelakis’ research is currently funded by the CIHR, the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs program, and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research.
"This preliminary research is encouraging and offers hope to thousands of Canadians and all others around the world who are afflicted by cancer, as it accelerates our understanding of and action around targeted cancer treatments," said Dr. Philip Branton, Scientific Director of the CIHR Institute of Cancer.
DCA and Cancer Patients
The University of Alberta’s DCA Research Team is set to launch clinical trials on humans in the spring of 2007 pending government approval. Knowing that thousands of cancer patients die weekly while waiting for a cure, Dr. Michelakis and his team are working at accelerated speed, condensing research that usually takes years into months. Fundraisers at the University of Alberta are determined to raise the money to allow this next phase of research to begin. Once Health Canada grants formal approval, the University of Alberta’s Research Team will begin testing DCA on patients living with cancer. Results with regards to the safety and efficacy of treatment should be known late this year.
“If there were a magic bullet, though, it might be something like dichloroacetate, or DCA…”
Newsweek, January 23, 2007
UPDATE January 23, 2007 - Investigators at the University of Alberta have recently reported that a drug previously used in humans for the treatment of rare disorders of metabolism is also able to cause tumor regression in a number of human cancers growing in animals. This drug, dichloroacetate (DCA), appears to suppress the growth of cancer cells without affecting normal cells, suggesting that it might not have the dramatic side effects of standard chemotherapies.
At this point, the University of Alberta, the Alberta Cancer Board and Capital Health do not condone or advise the use of dichloroacetate (DCA) in human beings for the treatment of cancer since no human beings have gone through clinical trials using DCA to treat cancer. However, the University of Alberta and the Alberta Cancer Board are committed to performing clinical trials in the immediate future in consultation with regulatory agencies such as Health Canada. We believe that because DCA has been used on human beings in Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials of metabolic diseases, the cancer clinical trials timeline for our research will be much shorter than usual.