By Andy Ho
AN EXCITED reader asked if it was possible to use radio waves to cure cancer, as reported in the British media.
A team of scientists led by Professor Boris Pasche of the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the United States says it has proof that low-intensity electromagnetic (EM) waves can cure cancer.
However, its findings, published in the British Journal of Cancer this month, are deemed amazingly implausible by experts. This is because EM waves carry too little energy to have any biological effect.
In 2009, the team published a study of 28 advanced cancer cases, six of whom responded to EM waves. Of these, one with metastatic breast cancer went into complete remission for 11 months while five with different cancers had partial remissions ranging from four to 34 months.
The EM gadget used to treat them looked like a bulky iPad with a coaxial cable coming out of it to terminate in a steel spoon the patient held in her mouth. Through that spoon was delivered low- intensity EM waves of specifiable frequencies for three hours thrice a day.
Last year, the team published another study of 41 patients with advanced liver cancer, of whom 14 had conditions which remained unchanged for six months, one had near-complete and three had partial remissions.
Now, the team has just demonstrated that EM waves can have actual biological effects on cells growing in a petri dish.
In the study just out, both healthy breast and liver cells, as well as breast and liver cancer cells, were subjected to EM waves at various frequencies.
The healthy liver and breast cells continued to grow undiminished but the growth of both types of cancer cells was significantly decreased by EM waves.
Specifically, in growth-suppressed liver cancer cells, genes called XCL2 and PLP2 were suppressed as well.
Interestingly, specific frequencies of EM waves appeared to be quite specific for specific cancers. Those that suppressed liver cancer cells did not impact breast cancer cells while those that suppressed breast cancer cells did not have any effect upon liver cancer cells.
However, these results threaten an article of faith in biophysics that the tiny amount of energy EM waves carry is not sufficient to break down the chemical bonds in DNA. Such breakdowns can lead to mutations, and thence perhaps cancer.
Since EM waves do not carry sufficient energy for such purposes, they cannot cause mutations and thus cancer. This is also why it is asserted that cellphones, all of which emit EM waves, are perfectly safe to use. By the same token, because they carry so little energy, EM waves cannot be used to cure cancer either. (By contrast, radioactive waves carry enough energy to cause mutations and thus cancer. Their energy, properly controlled, is used in radiotherapy to fight cancers.)
The Pasche claim is, in effect, that EM waves can have real biological effects however little energy they may carry. This is an extraordinary claim, which only extraordinary evidence can back up.
If this effect is not real, then possible explanations include scientific fraud and/or random chance effects.
Prof Pasche is already a well-published cancer biologist, so there is no reason for him to cook up data that jeopardises his reputation. But a junior team member might do so to make a name for himself. (Most of the grunt work in a lab is actually done and written up by subordinates, who are young PhDs.)
Here, one is reminded of Dr Jacques Benveniste (1935-2004), who published a 1988 paper in Nature about another hauntingly similar implausibility.
In some allergies, the antibody called anti-IgE causes some white blood cells called basophils to release histamine, which causes blocked or runny nose.
Then already a renowned immunologist, his lab supposedly showed that extremely dilute solutions of anti-IgE - so dilute it was pure water with no antibodies at all - could still make basophils release their histamine anyway.
His explanation was that water actually has memory, the very argument used to justify the practice called homeopathy. Nature published the article with the unusual disclaimer: 'Editorial reservation: Readers of this article may share the incredulity of the many referees... There is no physical basis for such an activity.'
Also, publication was conditioned on a Nature team being allowed to audit his lab and witness his experiments. Aided by Dr Benveniste's people, the Nature team also repeated his experiments under strict conditions in his own lab, but failed to replicate his astounding results.
Because he refused to retract his paper, Nature issued a report of its findings. The Benveniste lab had used inappropriate statistical methods while throwing out negative data. Moreover, contamination with anti-IgE had not been sufficiently prevented. That two co-authors were funded by a homeopathic manufacturer was unreported. His reputation in tatters, his lab eventually closed.
The lesson here is that contamination of experiments and selective use of favourable data, including random chance effects, can give researchers the results that look 'clean' enough for publication.
Thus, one has to be very sceptical of Prof Pasche's claims. Until his results are replicated at multiple centres, not too much hope may be placed on radio waves.