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Otto Heinrich Warburg is hardly a household name, yet this German physiologist and medical doctor won the Nobel Prize in 1931 and was nominated two more times. Though his father — the physicist Emil Warburg — was Jewish, Otto Heinrich Warburg became Hitler's cancer expert, affording him a special protected status during the Third Reich.
While that sounds like the start of an interesting story, and it is, Warburg's connection with Nazi Germany isn't what makes his name food for internet-connected conspiracy theorists from all corners of the globe. That would be due to his fascinating cancer hypothesis.
The Warburg Hypothesis
"The prime cause of cancer was officially discovered before 1923, and the scientist behind this finding received the Nobel Prize for that discovery in 1931," one Bosnian news portal says, continuing: "Only a very small number of people know about this fact, a truth that has unfortunately been concealed from the public."
Many lay websites that mention Warburg's theory sound a lot like this: paranoid, outdated, and like they're trying to let you in on an exclusive secret. Despite the dubious nature of proponents of his theory, Warburg's research — which was conducted nearly a century ago — is fascinating as well as impressive.
Fortunately for anyone interested in finding out more, the theory is only "concealed" from the portion of the public that doesn't have easy access to the internet. So, let's take a look at what the Warburg Hypothesis is all about.
Warburg won the Nobel Prize in 1931 for his theory that cancer develops as a result of mitochondrial damage and insufficient cell respiration, meaning the metabolism of cells in the body. His research indicated that cancer thrives in partially anaerobic ("acidic") conditions, so with little oxygen. Cancer cells mainly generate energy through the non-oxidative breakdown of glucose (glycolysis). Healthy cells, on the other hand, obtain energy from the oxidative breakdown of pyruvate, a final product of glycolysis, according to Warburg's theory.
'Cancer Cells Partial Anaerobes'
Warburg himself summed it up like this: "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. All normal body cells meet their energy needs by respiration of oxygen, whereas cancer cells meet their energy needs in great part by fermentation."
"Of what use is it to know the prime cause of cancer?," Warburg asks in his paper The Prime Cause And Prevention Of Cancer, adding: "Here is an example. In Scandinavian countries there occurs a cancer of the throat and esophagus whose precursor is the so-called Plummer-Vinson syndrome. This syndrome can be healed when one adds to the diet the active groups of respiratory enzymes, for example: iron salts, riboflavin, nicotinamide, and pantothenic acid. When one can heal the precursor of a cancer, one can prevent cancer."
It was later demonstrated that even cancer cells with intact mitochondria showed evidence of the Warburg Effect, showing a high glycolysis rate despite the presence of oxygen. As such, this tendency was instead proposed to be due to the higher energy demands of rapidly-growing cancer cells.