Sometimes things sound too good to be true, but they’re not. Here’s hoping this recent report from NewScientist.com that an old, unpatented, known-to-be-safe-to-humans drug called dichloroacetate (DCA) really is the silver bullet for cancer. The key activity for those scientifically minded:

DCA attacks a unique feature of cancer cells: the fact that they make their energy throughout the main body of the cell, rather than in distinct organelles called mitochondria. This process, called glycolysis, is inefficient and uses up vast amounts of sugar. Until now it had been assumed that cancer cells used glycolysis because their mitochondria were irreparably damaged. However, Michelakis’s experiments prove this is not the case, because DCA reawakened the mitochondria in cancer cells. The cells then withered and died (Cancer Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.ccr.2006.10.020).Michelakis suggests that the switch to glycolysis as an energy source occurs when cells in the middle of an abnormal but benign lump don’t get enough oxygen for their mitochondria to work properly. In order to survive, they switch off their mitochondria and start producing energy through glycolysis.

Crucially, though, mitochondria do another job in cells: they activate apoptosis, the process by which abnormal cells self-destruct. When cells switch mitochondria off, they become “immortal”, outliving other cells in the tumour and so becoming dominant. Once reawakened by DCA, mitochondria reactivate apoptosis and order the abnormal cells to die.

The cry of relief for humanity will be huge – the groan of frustration by drug companies unable to really make a profit on this unpatented drug however, should also be equally enjoyable for us all. Hopefully enough philanthropists will stand up to claim the pride of funding the required trials to prove this avenue is for real. Then we just have to wonder about how quickly we can get it distributed around the world…