Alternative Medicine

Physicist Tries Vitamin C for Cancer: Doesn’t Work

This is an interesting story, and I’m sorry for taking so long to get around to writing about it! Sir Paul Callaghan, a celebrated physicist, has been receiving high-dose intravenous infusions of vitamin C, in order to treat his cancer. He has now ended this experimental treatment, and come out with a bunch of scathing criticism of both the treatment itself and the alternative medicine industry in general.

According to Stuff:

The 64-year-old began the treatment during a six-month break from chemotherapy, tracking its effectiveness through a blood test for protein carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), which indicates cancer levels.

Yesterday, he told The Dominion Post he had ended his experiment after analysing data from six months of blood test results. “I have, as a result, learned enough to say that there is absolutely no evidence of any beneficial effect of high-dose intravenous vitamin C in my case.”

When I was first reading this, I couldn’t quite figure out what his motivation for doing this was. Did he really think it would work? The only statement I could find was at the NZ Skeptics in the Pub blog, where he is quoted as saying on his blog:

“Let me be clear. I do not deviate one step from my trust in evidence-based medicine,” Sir Paul said in his blog. However, if there was a potentially effective but unproven drug, “Why would I not try it?” he reasoned. “Am I mad? Probably.”

So basically he is using the “What’s the harm?” argument.

I think he has now discovered what the harm is, in that although the treatment may not have had any adverse affects on his health, his (failed) experiment has been used to promote the treatment, which could lead to others wasting time and money, and giving them false hope.

He said he wanted to make the results of his experiment public because of the risk his use of vitamin C would be used to falsely promote the therapy. “I’ve been deluged with correspondence from people who have wanted me to endorse products, try products. That was a really negative side.”

The way people promoted products without evidence was “quite repellent”, he said.

He had seen his name cited in articles promoting vitamin C and said he knew publicity about his experiment had caused other people to try it.

The Stuff article, after starting off well with the skepticism, goes a bit off the rails toward the end and starts quoting a “natural remedies researcher” who apparently said that he isn’t surprised that it didn’t work, although he really wished it had.

This guy then went on to say:

“Sir Paul is such a high-profile, well-respected person. It would be great if he could use that profile to initiate the funding for a trial.”

Which is quite a different story to what Sir Paul has himself said, on Radio New Zealand:

“I just wanted to set the record straight so that the New Zealand public knew what the outcome was in my case, that I wasn’t advocating this and that for me personally it was of no benefit.”

He says it is useful to hear case studies from individuals who have tried intravenous vitamin C but his negative result would suggest it is not worth conducting clinical trials.

In any case, I admire that Sir Paul has put his skepticism on the line and tried to make something good of it. I wish him all the best for the rest of his treatment.

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Lauren is a Maths and Physics student from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. She has an affinity for reality, and you can find her on twitter @lolrj, or Google+.


  1. February 7, 2012 at 12:30 am —

    Maybe he was influenced by the hypotheses of Nobel Prize winning biochemist Linus Pauling? Here is some data from what appears to be a somewhat trustworthy site, including results from groups with lung, breast, and prostate cancers:

    I’m no biochemist, but from what I’ve read, vitamins are not terribly helpful unless there is a serious deficiency.

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