Sir Paul Callaghan's 'unusual experiment'

Last updated 05:00 22/09/2011
SIR PAUL CALLAGHAN: 'Let me be clear. I do not deviate one step from my trust in evidence-based medicine.'
SIR PAUL CALLAGHAN: 'Let me be clear. I do not deviate one step from my trust in evidence-based medicine.'

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Bastion of science Sir Paul Callaghan is resorting to an experimental intravenous vitamin C treatment and Chinese medicine to fight his terminal cancer.

On his return to Wellington last week, the physicist and New Zealander of the Year headed to a complementary medicine clinic in the city to receive a high-dose vitamin C infusion.

The treatment is part of what he calls his "unusual experiment". He was diagnosed with aggressive bowel cancer in 2008, which has since spread widely.

In June, his oncologist advised him to take a break from chemotherapy to establish the full extent of the cancer's spread. Sir Paul is using the time to trial "unproven but interesting" therapies, including a remedy from Singapore's Ngee Ann Traditional Chinese Medical Centre, intravenous vitamin C and "Uncle CC's famous vegetable juice".

"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."

He is tracking the treatment's effectiveness through a blood test for protein carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), which indicates cancer levels. On June 28, after his first six intravenous vitamin C treatments, he noted his CEA had dropped after a period of rapid rises. "Of course, it may all be a coincidence. It may be the tai chi ... It may be the public speaking I am doing. It may be the Chilean volcano. I am not entirely a fool. Next month it might all change," he blogged.

He told The Dominion Post from England, where he is on sabbatical, that while he was finding the vitamin C and its effects "really interesting", it was too early to say whether the treatment was working. His CEA rose again in August. "Despite having recurrent cancer, I'm feeling in great shape."

Vitamin C as a cancer treatment has been debated for decades, since being championed by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Linus Pauling in the 1970s. Randomised trials reported in 1979 and 1985 found no benefits from 10-gram tablets, but 2008 American research found injections of high-dose vitamin C reduced aggressive cancer tumours in rats by 41 per cent to 53 per cent.

A Wellington doctor who gives intravenous vitamin C, who would not be named, estimated 30 clinics nationwide gave 10,000 vitamin C injections a year. She treats two or three people a day. The treatment starts at $70, and increases according to the dose.

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Victoria University professor Shaun Holt, who has written books on effective complementary medicine, said he could understand terminal cancer patients clutching at straws, but there was no evidence to support vitamin C treatment. It could be harmful, causing kidney problems and interfering with effective treatments such as radiation therapy.

He was concerned Sir Paul's use of the treatment would further increase the already high number of cancer and leukaemia patients asking for the injections.

"If people think it works, then do clinical trials. It's very simple. There's no shortage of people with cancer. Half get a placebo, half get intravenous vitamin C, and you see if they get better."


High-dose intravenous vitamin C is a long-debated, but as yet clinically unproven, cancer treatment. In New Zealand, Sir Paul was receiving the maximum dose of 100 grams, injected by a nurse under the supervision of a registered doctor. In England, that dose was reduced to 75 grams weekly.

Sir Paul is trying a herbal remedy prescribed by the Ngee Ann Traditional Chinese Medical Centre in Singapore. When attempting to find a similar treatment in London, Sir Paul was told many of the remedy's ingredients could not be imported into Britain. Uncle CC's famous vegetable juice is a blend of potato, carrot, cucumber, tomato, green apple, celery and barley green.

- The Dominion Post

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