Garlic, Cancer, and the Public Funding of Scientific Research

Four years ago, in The Mouse That Wouldn’t Die, I described how my husband’s colleague Zheng Cui found some mice in his lab that were naturally immune to cancer. Astonishingly, transferring special white blood cells, granulocytes, from immune mice killed cancer in non-immune mice. It turned out that some humans are also super-immune to cancer. Cui managed to help set up two small privately-funded experiments in Florida and in China, giving transfusions of granulocytes from healthy donors to cancer patients. The treatment seemed to be succeeding, including for Cui’s wife. But then … nothing, due to a lack of funds for follow-up and hostility from the medical establishment. The problem: blood transfusions are old medicine and therefore not patentable. The treatment could never be profitable. If ever there was a case for public funding of scientific research, that was it.

Undeterred, Cui plunged into research on another even more unlikely-seeming cancer treatment, injection of filtered raw garlic juice. Garlic does have antibiotic properties, and was once used for treating wounds. When I was a child living in Paris, our nanny fed me and my little sister raw garlic to kill intestinal worms, which maybe it does. Eating raw, cooked or powdered garlic has been widely touted as a preventative or cure for just about anything. There’s a strong stench of quackery to garlic remedies.

But now Cui’s results are in. A novel therapeutic anticancer property of raw garlic extract via injection but not ingestion just appeared in Cell Death Discovery, an open-access subsidiary of the top scientific journal, Nature. Cui injected groups of mice with two strains of rapidly-lethal untreatable mouse cancer cells. Then, unlike any prior researchers, he injected some of the cancerous mice with garlic juice. He fed the juice to others. The cancerous mice that were fed garlic quickly died, but the garlic-injected mice remained healthy. Cui then tested three human cancer laboratory cell lines with garlic juice, as well as with extracts of a number of other fruits and vegetables. Garlic rapidly killed all three cancer cell lines; cauliflower did pretty well too, followed by red grapes, guava and strawberries.

Cui also tested different parts of raw garlic juice, discovering that the anti-cancer activity came from a bunch of as yet unidentified small molecules. He hypothesizes that these molecules work without being toxic to normal cells because cancer cells are metabolic cripples; the mutations that let them grow wildly also leave them unable to metabolize many ordinary food compounds. The garlic molecules may just clog up the cancer cells until they die. In fact, says Cui, more than by uncontrolled growth, cancer cells kill when their busted metabolism spews toxic little bits of protein into the bloodstream. That causes cachexia, the weakness and wasting away of seriously-ill victims. Conventional chemotherapy attacks cancer cells at their strong point, their ability to multiply rapidly, rather than at their weak point, their compromised metabolism. In the process, chemotherapy damages normal growing cells, such as hair follicles.

What now? However promising, Cui’s discovery may not soon lead to a human treatment, certainly not a conventional one provided through the medical establishment. First of all, to identify the anti-cancer molecules in garlic and fully test them in animal and human subjects to meet FDA requirements would take years and hundreds of millions of dollars. Second, garlic juice is an old medicine. It’s not patentable. Hence the pharmaceutical industry may not be willing to invest.

That doesn’t make treatment totally unavailable. Garlic is a food. It’s still routine and legal to feed people intravenously, usually people who can’t feed themselves due to illness. The FDA requires only that intravenous food be free of particles and sterile. Moreover, on May 30 2018, President Trump signed a “Right to Try” law allowing terminally ill patients to use experimental treatments.

As for practicality, I did a back of the envelope calculation. Cui injected lab mice, which weigh about 15 grams, with a tenth of a gram of filtered garlic juice for 21 days. Scaling up to a 150-pound human, that’s about a pound = a pint of garlic juice, requiring a dozen or so heads of garlic a day. However, Cui made the dose as large as possible to test for toxicity; much lower doses over longer periods might be just as effective. It would make sense to start with lower amount and escalate the dose gradually.

Nonetheless, as with blood transfusions, the unprofitability and quacky aura of a garlic treatment means any testing or implementation will happen slowly at best. National Institute of Health funding for biological and medical research, today at about $39 billion, is down in constant dollars from a $43 billion peak in 2003. The Trump administration wants further cuts. While $39 billion may still seem like a lot, the competition is fierce between thousands of established research programs, whose scientists peer-review each other’s proposals. Only a major increase in funding—and probably a major opening in medical minds—might soon leave room for novel, public investment in that humble herb, garlic.

Originally published in December 9, 2018 on the Dollars and Sense blog.

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