Linus Pauling's last laugh? Vitamin C might be bad news for mutant colorectal cancer

Linus Pauling holding enough rope to make sure we
can hang ourselves with it if we don't run the right
statistically validated experiments
During the last few decades of his life, Linus Pauling (in) famously began a crusade to convince the general public of the miraculous benefits of Vitamin C for curing every potential malady, from the common cold to cancer. Pauling’s work on ascorbic acid resulted in many collaborations, dozens of papers and at least two best-selling books.

The general reaction to his results and studies ranged from “interesting” to “hey, where are the proper controls and statistical validation?” Over the years none of his work has been definitively validated, but vitamin C itself has continued to be interesting, partly because of its cheap availability and ubiquitous nature in our diet and partly because of its antioxidant properties that seem to many people to be “obviously” beneficial (although there’s been plenty of criticism of antioxidants in general in recent years). Personally I have always put vitamin C in the “interesting and should be further investigated” drawer, partly because oxidation and reduction are such elemental cellular phenomena that anything that seeks to perturb such fundamental events deserves to be further looked at.

Now here’s an interesting paper in Science that validates the potential benefits of ascorbic acid in a very specific but well-defined case study. It’s worth noting at the outset that the word ‘potential’ should be highlighted in giant, size 24 bold font sizes. The authors who are part of a multi-organization consortium look at the effects of high doses of the compound on colorectal cancer cells with mutations in two ubiquitous and important proteins – KRAS and BRAF. KRAS and BRAF are both part of key signaling networks in cells. Mutations in both of these proteins are seen in up to 40% of all cancers, so both proteins have unsurprisingly been very high-profile targets of interest in cancer therapy for several decades. The mutation is additionally important because it also turns out that cancers with these mutations show poor response to anti-EGFR therapies.

One of the hallmarks of cancer cells which has been teased out in fascinating detail in the last few years is their increased metabolism and especially their dependence on glucose metabolism pathways such as glycolysis that allows them to feed hungrily on this crucial substance. The current study took off from the observation that a glucose transporter protein called GLUT1 is overexpressed in these mutant cancer cells. Incidentally this transporter protein is also involved in transporting vitamin C, but in its oxidized form (dehydroascorbate – DHA). Presumably the authors put two and two together and wondered if ascorbate might be more rapidly absorbed by the mutant cancer cells and mess up the oxidation-reduction machinery inside.

It turns out that it does. Firstly, the authors confirmed by the addition of reducing agents that it’s the oxidized form of vitamin C that interferes with the cancer cells’ survival. Secondly, they looked at mutant vs wild-type cells and found that the mutant cells are indeed much more efficient at ascorbate uptake. Thirdly, they looked at various markers for cell death like apoptosis signals and found out that these were indeed more pronounced in the KRAS-BRAF mutant cells (addition of a reducing agent rescued these cells, again attesting to the function of DHA rather than reduced vitamin C). Fourthly, mice with known as well as transgenic KRAS mutations showed favorable tumor reduction when vitamin C was intravenously administered.

Fifth and most interesting, they performed protein metabolite analysis of the cells’ machinery after treatment with vitamin C and found that there was a significant accumulation of chemical intermediates which serve as substrates for the enzyme glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAPDH). GAPDH is a central enzyme of the glycolytic pathway and its inhibition would unsurprisingly lead to cell starvation and death. Lastly, they were able to make a statement about the mechanism of action of vitamin C on GAPDH by determining that it might interfere with post-translational modification of the protein and NAD+ depletion.

The authors end with some ruminations on the history of vitamin C therapy for cancer and the usual qualifications which should apply to any such study,. As they note, vitamin C has a checkered history in the treatment of cancer but most studies which failed to show benefits only involved large oral doses of the vitamin (Pauling himself was rumored to ingest up to 50 g of the substance a day). Intravenous administration however has suggested that far higher doses may be required for effective results. And of course, this study was done in mice, and time after time we have seen that such studies cannot be measurably extrapolated to human beings without a lot of additional work, so you should pause a bit before you rush off and try to inject yourself with Emergen-C solution.

Nonetheless, I think the detail-oriented and relatively clear nature of the study makes it a good starting point. Google searches of vitamin C and colorectal cancer bring up at least a few tantalizing clues as to its potential efficacy (along with a lot of New Age, feel-good piffle). As usual the key goal here is to separate out the wheat from the chaff, the sloppy anecdotal evidence from the careful statistical validation and the detailed mechanistic rationales from the stratospheric theorizing. When the dust settles we would hopefully have a clearer picture. And who knows, maybe the ghost of Linus Pauling might then even allow himself the last laugh, or at least an imperceptible smile.


  1. He was most likely right and the fact that his claims have not been definitively invalidated even after decades of work in the field makes his claims much more interesting.

    What annoys me when it comes to Pauling and Vitamin-C is that even scientists do not hesitate to label him as "old", "fool" or even "stupid" when he spent years on his idea. They tend to forget that he won a Nobel Prize in chemistry and he is (in my opinion) the most important chemist in the 20th century. From biology to crystallography we owe him a lot. If people read some textbooks, they will see that he's cited in the first chapters of any book on general chemistry, biochemistry and inorganic chemistry. I guess this explains how influential he was and is.

  2. Pauling had no shortage of opinions one way or the other. His opinions on quasi-crystals springs to my mind as much as his Vitamin C opinions.

  3. Pauling was the most important chemist of the 20thC - but he wasn't God.

    Look at his paper on the triple strand structure of DNA, for example.

    1. He didn't know the water content and diameter of DNA since the best diffraction data was in England. And we all know how Watson and Crick had the "opportunity" to look at it. It's very unlikely for someone who had discovered alpha helix not to think of a double stranded DNA if he had seen enough data.

  4. Also worth noting that by this time he was distracted and facing political problems - the State Department had not given him a passport to attend a conference in England where he likely would have seen Franklin's photographs. If he had focused his full attention on DNA and had access to Franklin's photographs there is little doubt that he would have cracked the structure.


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