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Back in 1931 the German physiologist Otto Warburg was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his often-repeated explanation of how normal cells metastatisize into cancerous cells.

Even Nobel Prize winners are sometimes wrong - cancer as a fungus

The famous Warburg hypothesis stated, "Cancer, above all other diseases, has countless secondary causes. But, even for cancer, there is only one prime cause. Summarized in a few words, the prime cause of cancer is the replacement of the respiration of oxygen in normal body cells by a fermentation of sugar. "  

Unfortunately, generations of natural healers have taken Dr. Warburg's theory too literally.

The image of cancer as a fungus

When most of us think fermentation, we envision of bowl of flour and sugar and water mixed with yeast, growing and bubbling, changing flour into bread or transforming fruit or grain into alcohol. What the esteemed Dr. Warburg was referring to, however, was something quite different. The "fermentation" of which Warburg spoke was the biochemical process now termed anaerobic respiration. This is a natural adaptation of cancerous cells and healthy cells alike when they are under stress. 

Warburg's "fermentation" is equivalent to the "burn" you feel when you exercise with so much intensity that you get out of breath. The ability to "ferment" glucose through anaerobic respiration is one way of measuring physical fitness. So what was meant when Warburg said that cancer results from the fermentation of sugar?

When it is at rest and not under stress, a healthy cell uses oxygen and glucose to make energy it stores in the form of adenosine triphosphate, also known as ATP. When this same healthy cell needs to make a lot of energy really fast, it "burns" glucose without oxygen. This is what Warburg meant by "fermenting" glucose. Provided there is enough glucose in the bloodstream to "burn" and also enough insulin to transport it, the cell can make the energy it needs through this extremely inefficient process. "Fermentative" or anaerobic respiration requires 19 times as much glucose to make the same amount of energy. 

"Fermentation" in cancer and fungi

Moreover, all the "fermentation" changes the electrolyte balance of the cell. Each time a cell takes in one molecule of glucose from the bloodstream, it expels two positively charged potassium ions. Also at the same time, it absorbs three positively charged sodium ions. This builds up a positive charge inside the cell.

The membrane that lines the cell, however, normally has a slightly negative charge so that it can attract positively charged amino acids and hormones.  When the cell has to produce its energy without oxygen, the negative charge natural to the cell membrane is offset by the positive charge of the rapidly accumulating sodium. The net charge over the membrane is still negative, but enough positive charges build up inside the cell that it cannot take up essential nutrients as easily. It has to create new transporter molecules that are uniquely associated with cancer cells. It has to expend more and more energy just to take in nourishment. This happens in fungi, too, of course, but many fungi are not constricted into tight spaces the same way cancer cells are in the human body.

The sodium in the sick cell has to be diluted with water. Cancer cells bloat because they absorb sodium, which the diet provides mostly in the form of sodium chloride, or table salt. The more sodium they contain, the more water they absorb to dilute it. The way cancer cells get their sodium is by burning glucose without oxygen. Every time they burn one molecule of glucose this way, they have to take in two sodium ions and expel three potassium ions. 

Cancer, like fungi, can consume enormous quantities of sugar

But the anaerobic process requires 19 times as much glucose to make the same amount of energy. This means the cell takes in 38 times as much sodium as a cell operating in an oxygen-rich environment, and it loses 57 times as much potassium. The cell can expend even more energy to get its electrolytes back in balance, but in cancer, the deficiency of potassium and the toxic surplus of sodium distort the shape and architecture of the cell. 

Just how out of balance can a cell become? 

In any healthy cell, there is more potassium inside and more sodium outside. In a sick cell, there is more sodium inside and more potassium outside. Here are the relative magnitudes of sodium, potassium, and water in normal and damaged muscle cells measured by a scientist named Freeman Cope:

  • A cancer cell contains 5 percent as much potassium as a healthy cell.
  • A cancer cell contains 4 times as much sodium as a healthy cell. 

When a muscle cell, such as a heart muscle cell, is healthy, it contains approximately 17 times as much potassium as sodium. When it is injured, it contains approximately 4 times as much sodium as potassium. When sodium content increases, water pours into the cell. 

Sodium, like proteins, enzymes, DNA, and RNA has a positive charge. Like charges repel each other. As more and more sodium accumulates in the cell, all these essential substances lose their normal shape. They stop functioning normally. Although there are many more processes at work, as the cell bloats with sodium and water, it becomes cancerous. The longer the newly cancerous cell operates in low-oxygen conditions, the more sodium it accumulates, the more water it absorbs, and the easier it is for it to metastasize and form new tumors. 

At a molecular level, moving all the components of the latticework of a cell, the amino acids, the lipids, the carbohydrates, and water, into the right place, requires a great deal of energy. Keeping all the components of a cell "glued" together also requires energy, because anytime a new substance with an electrical charge enters the cell, the structure of the cell naturally tends to fall apart. These poorly organized cells become cancerous. And because anaerobic respiration produces lactic acid, they produce a tool that helps them escape tumors and spread throughout the body. 

Where Dr. Warburg went wrong, and why cancer became confused with fungi

So you could say that cancerous cells are really normal cells that somehow became "tired." That's the real problem with low oxygenation, and a weakness in Dr. Warburg's theory.  It's also how cancer got confused with fungi.

Cancer is not sustained by low oxygenation, it's caused by it. Cancer cells secrete hormones to grow blood vessels and break free into the blood stream in order to receive the same amount of oxygen as healthy cells. 

Oxygen does not kill cancer. Sugar does not cause cancer. The inability to recover from the anaerobic respiration of sugar is what causes cancer. 

This means that there is more than one way to deal with low oxygen levels. Simply getting more oxygen into circulation, of course, keeps cells from needing to make energy anaerobically. Dr. Warburg noted that some capillaries carry only 65 per cent of the oxygen content of the arteries, and that cancerous tumors lurk at the ends of these arteries. Increasing the oxygen content of the blood stops the damage, but only adding potassium and taking away sodium reverses it. 

Cancer and Baking Soda

Now what does all of this have to do with the frequent recommendation that somehow baking soda could be a cure for cancer? Well, the idea is not entirely wrong. Lactic acid, after all, is one of the tools cancers use to escape the tissues that constrain them.

The kind of alkalization that is truly helpful, however, is the alkalization from alkalizing foods. That is the subject of another article on this site.

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  • Photo courtesy of Michael Francis by Flickr :