Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

The View from Mudsock Heights: Awareness is Fine, But It Takes a Lot More Than That to Cure Diseases

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 3:54 PM

All the time we hear about it: the “race for a cure” or a “walk” for this or that illness. When it is explained why the event is being held, the phrase “raise awareness” is always included. Money is always raised, too; it’s never entirely clear what the money is used for. Perhaps it is used to purchase awareness from those who do not give it away.

What makes me think of this is a fairly startling scientific study, the results of which were released a couple of weeks ago in Science magazine. It carried the non-captivating title, “Metabolic Modulation of Glioblastoma with Dichloroacetate,” but its content was exciting: A substance, dichloroacetate, shows great promise in the treatment of solid tumors — yes, these are cancerous — and certain aggressive and invariably fatal brain tumors in particular.

It turns out that dichloroacetate is what is called an “orphan drug.” This is a class of pharmaceuticals that either provide cures for relatively rare diseases or that cannot be patented — DCA is among the latter.

Anyone who has used prescription drugs has probably complained about their price. The drug companies get blamed for these prices, by people who do not know why they’re so expensive. It costs a huge amount of money to bring a drug to market. Typically, the research plus the costs of jumping through regulatory hoops in order to gain approval for a single new pharmaceutical product are in the neighborhood of a half-billion dollars. When thinking of this, bear in mind that not all drugs make the grade — some are abandoned for one reason or another, many millions of dollars into the process. (There are liability issues as well. Remember Vioxx? This popular drug was highly effective in relieving the crippling pain of arthritis, but over time it emerged that it slightly increased the likelihood that users would have heart attacks or strokes. It was withdrawn. Many users, including a good friend of mine, said they would willingly take the risk because no other drug provided relief. But the choice was not theirs to make. Vioxx disappeared in a cloud of lawyers and television class-action lawsuit ads.)

When a drug is an “orphan,” pharmaceutical companies cannot hope to recoup those tremendous costs. So the product never becomes available.

Which brings us to DCA. Scientists at the University of Alberta in Canada used the substance on five — that’s not a misprint, it was only five — patients suffering from very aggressive brain tumors. Over 18 months, according to a university press release, “the team showed that DCA works in these tumors exactly as was predicted by test tube experiments… . Importantly, in some patients there was also evidence for clinical benefit, with the tumors either regressing in size or not growing further during the 18 month study.” Actually, “some” is an understatement: four of the five got better. What’s more, there were no terrible side effects in dosages that were sufficient to work on the tumors.

But a study involving only five test subjects won’t get anything approved for use. That would require a much, much bigger experiment. That kind of research is very expensive. And there’s more: if money were found to study a thousand brain tumor patients, the drug might get approved — but only for brain tumors. It might be as effective as all get out on other solid tumors, but it would not be legal to use it for treatment of them.

Because DCA is in the public domain — no one can patent it — no pharmaceutical company will undertake the research. A company could gain approval for it, but anyone then could manufacture it and the company would have to swallow the cost. No company stays in business doing things like that. DCA, by the way, is cheap to manufacture.

Which brings me back to the races, walks, and other activities that are supposed to “raise awareness.” The problem isn’t a lack of awareness. The problem is the lack of cures.

DCA strikes me as a perfect example of the kind of thing that money publicly raised ought to be financing. There are all kinds of problems in getting the government to pay for research, not the least being that the costs rise exponentially and factors other than the safety and effectiveness of the drug enter the mix. No, unless money is raised and put directly to use on studies of products such as DCA — I’m sure there are others as well — that research will simply not get done.

So when I read that a very promising drug has undergone a clinical trial on a paltry five people, it makes me wonder where all that money is going.

We have the walking and running and awareness parts taken care of. Time now for the other side of the equation: the cure.

Otherwise, all those fine activities make the good and sincere participants feel as if they’ve done something, when maybe they haven’t.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at

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2 comments posted so far.

Re: The View from Mudsock Heights: Awareness is Fine, But It Takes a Lot More Than That to Cure Diseases

Thank you for a revealing article. There’s even more to the orphan drug story, and DCA in particular.

When the original University of Alberta DCA study was published, on January 17, 2007, I was in treatment for metastatic prostate cancer (72GY radiation & 2.5 years triple hormonal blockade). I failed treatment, emerging with a disease doubling time of 24 days; a grim situation. Chemotherapy is only palliative for prostate cancer patients, it does not extend survival time. And the side effects are often debilitating. What to do? Like many cancer patients with diminished options, I decided to self-administer a novel treatment. In this case, DCA.

DCA is an orphan drug which for 30+ years has been safely used in the U.S.A. to treat infants born with congenial lactic acidosis; also to treat cerebral ischemia among other conditions, so it is well described in the literature and the side effects are understood. It is not completely benign but is far safer in my opinion than radiation, hormonal blockade or chemotherapy. I had already done my homework and knew to watch for hypoglycemia. I limited my dose to 15mg/kg and took benfotiamine to minimize peripheral neuropathy, R+Lipoic Acid for hepatic support, and arranged regular lab work to monitor liver function.

My physicians feared censure because DCA is not approved for cancer treatment and refused to work with me; I was on my own. Fortunately an individual in California, Jim Tassano, made available pharmaceutical grade DCA at cost, about a dollar a day, through a website now closed by the FDA: He also hosts a forum where about 1,700 cancer patients exchange information about use of DCA and other novel cancer treatments:

30 days after initiating DCA the constant pain in my hips and lower spine ceased. 60 days after starting DCA the profuse bleeding from bladder and colon ceased completely. My PSA doubling time dropped from 24 days to 72 months and stabilized. I regained the ability to work, exercise, travel, get a tan, enjoy life. While not a complete cure, with a low disease burden and a three year disease doubling time one can live practically forever.

Eventually the cancer developed resistance to DCA, as happens with so many drugs. (I think I know why and am working to restore sensitivity.) This pattern of temporary remission seems to be a typical experience for early adopters of DCA, although there have been a few reports of complete cures (prostate cancer, sarcoma). About 1,700 patients around the world are currently utilizing DCA as a cancer treatment, off-label. The most organized DCA treatment program is offered by the Medicor Clinic in Canada:

Terminal patients like myself need more advocates of courage and conscience like Jim Tassano. And more journalists like yourself who are prepared to do the research needed to write an insightful and informative article like the above. My thanks to you both.

Posted by Randy M - Jun 02, 2010 | 8:31 PM

Re: The View from Mudsock Heights: Awareness is Fine, But It Takes a Lot More Than That to Cure Diseases


my father died in 1996 from a Glioblastoma and my mother had colon tumor removal in 2009.

Universities of Alberta, Florida and California are planning more clinical studies about DCA against cancer(

Researchers around USA, Canada, China are evaluating the potential of the DCA to fight the cancer (

Unfortunatly europe seems not investigating a lot.

I plan to send a mail to the french ministry of health about DCA and the need of more research on it even if the ROI is not money immediatly.

Good luck to all

Posted by Jean-Marie - Jun 20, 2010 | 9:34 PM