Posts Tagged ‘Cancer’

The Empire Strikes Back


                                    “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”

                  How Agribusiness Treats Scientists Who Question GE Safety

                                             by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.


Doctor Pusztai’s Potatoes

     My Phone was ringing off the hook.  When I breathlessly reached it, I found my neighbor, Dr. Charles Benbrook on the other end.  “I have a house guest who I think you might want to meet” he said.  “It’s Dr. Arpad Pusztai. We are having a get-together tonight at my house.  Do you want to come?”

Did I want to come?  Is the Pope Catholic? Do cows give milk?  I had been reading about Pusztai for months in preparing for a lecture I was about to give on Genetic Engineering.  The name Arpad Pusztai (pronounced poos-tee) is not exactly a household word, but in some rarified circles he has rock star status.  He lives in Scotland.  What on Earth was he doing in the little town of Sandpoint, Idaho? I had better begin at the beginning.

Genetic Engineering(GE) is the science of taking genes from one organism and inserting them in the cells of another, thus making novel combinations of genes that never would have appeared in the normal course of Evolution.  e.g. When a gene for producing the pesticide Bt is inserted into corn, every cell in the corn plant becomes a miniature insecticide factory.

Right from the beginning, there has been controversy about the nature of these new combinations, dubbed Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and their possible effects. Proponents of GE, which include Agribusiness, many Molecular Biologists (scientists who do GE), and US government agencies, argue that it will bring great benefits and is safe because GMOs are essentially the same as naturally-occurring organisms.  Its opponents disagree, both as to the so-called “normal” nature of GMOs and as to their possible effects.

The question arises, how can we determine if GMOs, are safe to use as food and to let into our environment? One obvious way is to do scientifically controlled experiments on their safety.  But because of the official government attitude that GMOs are a priori “substantially the same” as natural organisms, relatively little research into that question has been done.

In 1998, Arpad Pusztai, who worked in the Rowett Institute in Edinborough, Scotland, received the first grant in the United Kingdom to examine the effects of GMO food on animals.  Dr. Pusztai, who fled his native Hungary during the anticommunist uprisings of the 1950s, is a biochemist, who specializes in nutritional studies.  He has written almost 300 scientific papers and has an international reputation.  He was thrilled to get the grant.  He did not know that it was going to destroy his scientific career.

Dr Pusztai studied rats fed GMO potatoes, in which a gene from the Snowdrop plant was inserted.  That gene produces a Lectin.  That is a chemical that helps protect plants from insect pests.  He thought that it was going to be a straightforward study that would support the conventional scientific wisdom that GMO plants were just like ordinary plants.  He found instead that the presence of the gene resulted in stunted organ growth and produced immune system problems in the rats.

He sent off a paper to one of the most prestigious scientific publications in the world, an English  journal, The Lancet.  It was reviewed and accepted.  That was his first mistake.  The second one was when he was interviewed on BBC national television about his discovery.  The Head of the Rowett Institute called Dr Pusztai and congratulated him on his presentation.

Three days later, the roof fell in.  He was locked out of his laboratory and subsequently fired. His wife and co-author also lost her job at the institute, and the wrath of the scientific establishment came down on his head.  Letters came pouring into The Lancet, criticizing his paper and The Lancet for having accepted it.  They ranged from charges that his controls were inadequate, his interpretation of his data incorrect, to insinuations that he had totally botched the experiment by mistakenly putting an entirely different, toxic chemical into the potatoes.  The Editor of The Lancet, to his credit, vigorously defended the scientific value of Dr Pusztai’s paper.

After weeks  and months of such a bombardment, Dr Pusztai and his wife decided to take a vacation to get away from all the stress.  That was mistake number three, and this is when the story really gets scary.  While he was away, his home got broken into, and guess what was taken – his research data books!  I wonder how much they would bring at a pawn shop?  At about the same time his former lab at the Rowett Institute was also broken into.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came when rumors were spread that, yes, Dr. Pusztai had been an eminent scientist, but that now he is old and suffers from dementia.  He had become addled.

Back to that evening at Dr. Benbrook’s house on Upper Pack River Road.  Chuck Benbrook runs an internet information service, called Ag BioTech InfoNet.  It is devoted to GE impacts and applications to agriculture, especially pesticides.  Dr Benbrook is an agricultural economist, who formerly worked in Washington D.C. as Executive Director of the Subcommittee of the House Committee on Agriculture .  He met Dr Pusztai at a conference in Paris, and invited him to the US where he had arranged a speaking tour for him.

I spent over three hours dinning and talking with Dr. Pusztai.  I found him to be charming, highly intelligent, and surprisingly unbitter about what had happened to him.  If he is demented, maybe we should all have Alzheimer’s.  He was as sharp as a tack.


The Mexican Maze

     University of California at Berkeley (U C Berkeley) graduate student David Quist went down to Oaxaca, Mexico, to show farmers how to test seeds for GMOs.  Oaxaca is known as the birthplace of Corn, and its ancestor plant, Teosinte, still exists there.  It was feared that genes from GM corn (or maize as it is properly known), might, by way of its airborne pollen, get into Teosinte and the form of maize farmed there called Criolla, and turn them into “superweeds.”  These are wild forms of domestic plants, that because they have been genetically transformed, with let’s say built-in pesticide-producing capabilities, can successfully compete with their agricultural relatives and crowd them out.  For this reason, and because transgenic (GE) crops are considered a particular threat to biodiversity, the Mexican government had declared Oaxaca a GMO-free zone.

Quist needed controls to show the farmers what both positive and negative results looked like. For the positives, he brought along store-bought corn from the US, where at least 40 % of the crop is now GMO.  He used native Mexican Criolla for the negatives.  But, something was wrong.  He kept getting positive signals from the Criolla.

Quist took samples of the Criolla back to Berkeley where he and his major professor, Dr Ignacio Chapela of the Department of Environmental Science, decided to do more detailed studies.  They came up with two major findings: (1) Much of the Criolla had a Cauliflower Mosaic Virus(CMV) gene in it.  CMV is used by Molecular Geneticists as a Promoter, typically used to “turn on” or activate inserted foreign genes; and (2) There was other foreign genetic material in these plants, and (3) most importantly, it had moved around in the Criolla DNA.  Genes are not supposed to do this.  They are supposed to sit tight where they are put.  If they move around, they could have different, unexpected effects.

Chapela and Quist submitted their findings to Nature, perhaps the most respected and tough-to-get-into journal in the world.  Their paper underwent four rigorous peer-reviews in eight months, was accepted and published.


The Death Star

     The proponents of GMO’s insist that GE is a safe, predictable, and exact science.  They give the impression that they know and can control where each inserted gene goes in the genome, and how it is expressed.  They do not talk much about the possibility that these genes could be passed to other plants.

This paper challenged all of those assumptions, and the reaction was not slow in coming.  Several Letters to the Editor were sent to Nature by both present and former graduate students and others who had connections with the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, across the campus at U C Berkeley.

Plant and Microbial Biology had recently signed a contract with bioengineering giant, Syngenta, for which they received twenty five million dollars.  In turn, they agreed to do research for Syngenta and to put Syngenta employees on their Board of Directors.  Even in these days of megabucks, this is a lot of money for one department.  Quist and Chapela had been among a lot of people at the University who had opposed the deal, concerned that it would encourage research that favored genetic engineering and curtail  studies that did not.  We shall see how this plays out.

The letters were unusual for a scientific publication.  There were the usual challenges about possible errors in: techniques, controls, statistics, and interpretations.  However, there were in addition,  ad hominem arguments, accusing Quist and Chapela of allowing their political convictions to sway their research conclusions. There were also allegations that they did not have appropriate scientific backgrounds to understand the intricacies of GE.

Nature ran an editorial that for the first time in 133 years of publication, rescinded support for a paper which however they did not ask to be withdrawn.  In addition, in an unusual move, Nature asked Quist and Chapela to retest their samples using a different technique, and gave them a scant four weeks in which to do it.  They actually accomplished this, and confirmed their original results.

AgBioWorld Foundation, a pro-biotech web site run by Tuskegee scientist C.S. Prakash, was a center for criticism of Quist and Chapela.  It posted many emails critical of them, and curiously enough, 60 of the emails seemed to come from two persons, Mary Murphy and Andura Smetacek.  This caught the eye of an enterprising columnist, Jonathan Matthews, from the British publication, The Ecologist, who succeeded in tracing the emails to the Bivings Group, a Washington PR firm. One of Bivings’ largest customers is another bioengineering giant, Monsanto.  Bivings specializes in ‘Internet Advocacy’ campaigns and ‘Viral Marketing’.  In other words, Bivings floods internet postings and chat groups with anonymous or bogus correspondents, in an attempt to influence opinions favorable to their clients.

Matthews discovered that neither Murphy nor Smetacek are real people. He also revealed that AgBioTech was linked to Bivings on the internet.

GMOs have become a multibillion dollar business, very important to the AgBioTech industry and to the governments of the United Kingdom and the U.S., which support these businesses. This industry has many allies in the molecular biology field, whose prestige, research money, and very jobs depend on the public’s perception that GE is a good thing.  These institutions  will go to great lengths to protect their investment, and they will oppose anyone who tends to cast doubt on the worth and safety of their discoveries.  And, they do not always play fair.

An analysis of these circumstances shows a clear pattern of strategy. Attack the dissenters’ science and methodology through letters to the editor in scientific journals, internet web sites, and press releases from scientific organizations, controlled or influenced by the judicious use of industry money.  In this way, divert the argument away from biological conclusions and toward experimental techniques.  Make personal attacks, either upon the investigators integrity or competence, or better yet, both.  Finally, attempt to destroy their careers, thus preventing them from doing further research along these lines, and as a warning to other scientists that research into the safety of GMO’s will not be helpful to their careers.

I will bring you up to date about Drs. Chapela and Pusztai.  Quist and Chapela’s results have been confirmed by several other investigators. Dr. Chapela later came up for tenure at Berkeley.  He was supported both by his own department and by the unanimous vote of the university tenure committee.  In an unprecedented move, he was denied tenure by the Chancellor.  He will have to leave the University.  Protests were organized and letters circulated by students and faculty, to no avail.

As for Arpad Pusztai, veterans of the Hungarian uprising are not creampuffs.  They are survivors.  Dr. Pusztai started an organization with a web site, devoted to telling about the other, darker side of GE.


For more information on GEs and GMOs, we refer you to Dr. Fischman’s first article, “The Dark Side of Genetic Engineering,” which appeared in The Reader, vol. 2, No. 1, Jan. 6. 2005., and is posted on the web site, Ancient Pathways To A Sustainable Future, or



The Dark Side Of Genetic Engineering


Ken Fischman, Ph.D.

“Everything has both intended & unintended consequences, & the intended

consequences may or may not happen, but the unintended consequences always do.”

Dee Hock, former CEO of VISA International

In 1988, Showa Denko, a Japanese pharmaceutical company, shipped the first batch of genetically engineered L-Tryptophan to the United States. L-Tryptophan is an amino acid, normally contained in all of our cells. Naturally-derived L-Tryptophan had been sold over the counter for decades to thousands, perhaps millions, of people to relieve symptoms of insomnia or depression. There had never been reports of any ill effects.

The genetically engineered L-Tryptophan killed 37 Americans, more than 5,000 others came down with a hitherto unheard of disease called Eosinophilia Myalgia Syndrome, and many were permanently injured.

Showa Denko’s attorney admitted in federal court that it was most likely that the genetic engineering had caused the calamity. Just prior to the trial, Showa Denko destroyed the original batches of bacteria from which the L-Tryptophan had been extracted.  Showa Denko was clearly at fault, but because the bacteria were no longer available for analysis, it could never be definitively proven that it was specifically the genetic engineering that did it. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that it was not the genetic engineering that was at fault, and the deaths and injuries were probably due to some manufacturing error. Instead of banning only the genetically engineered variety, they banned all over-the-counter sales of L-Tryptophan.

When Watson and Crick unlocked the secret of DNA in 1956, they fundamentally changed our world. They enabled scientists to understand many of the basic properties of inheritance. This was followed by the introduction of techniques enabling scientists to manipulate those processes in order to alter living organisms in ways that had never before been possible. In rapid succession, scientists deciphered the code found in the sequence of molecules along the long DNA chain, and discovered that DNA produced a similar molecule called RNA, which in turn produced proteins. Some kinds of proteins make up most of our cell structures, while others function as enzymes, controlling essential bodily processes. This new field of science is called Genetic Engineering (GE) and the new forms of life produced by it are termed Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). They are brought to you by modern wizards called Molecular Biologists.

Molecular Biologists have been able to decipher the genetic code laid out in the linear sequence of genes and identify many of their functions.  They can snip them out of the chains of DNA and insert them in the cells of other organisms. Farmers, animal husbandmen, and scientists have been breeding animals and plants for thousands of years in order to produce new combinations of characteristics. However, up until now, these characteristics had always been ones that had preexisted in some members of the same species. Through eons of evolution, living organisms accumulated combinations and sequences of genes that for the most part work together harmoniously. However, the techniques of Molecular Biology shorten the time dimension and leapfrog the species barrier. For example, it is now possible to take the “antifreeze” gene from Flounders, a cold-water species of fish, and insert it into the genome (total array of genes in an organism) of a potato! This enables GE potatoes to survive periods of frost, and to extend their growing seasons. Thus, scientists can now combine genes that had never before been in the same organism.

The wonderful potentialities of this science have been emphasized for years by molecular biologists, the medical establishment, agribusiness, and government itself. They tell us that they will be able to cure humanity’s illnesses, produce wonder drugs grown in genetically-altered animals, grow made-to-order organs for transplantation, feed the starving millions of mankind, etc. However, none of these institutions talk about the dark side. This article explores the dark side.

In 1992 the FDA issued a ruling, stating that genetically engineered foods are “substantially” like natural foods, and therefore do not need to be regulated.  This has come to be known as the “Substantial Equivalence” rule.  The significance of this ruling was that the food industry would not have to perform safety studies and clinical tests on GMOs, such as are required before new drugs come onto the market. The ruling also removed much of the oversight that the FDA would exercise on drugs after they reached the market. The Federal Government could thus argue, and subsequently did, that because these GE foods are just like regular foods, there is of course no need to label them in order to distinguish them from other, non-GE foods.

European countries, on the contrary, have adopted a different approach  to the marketing of GMOs.  They have put the onus of proving the safety of these foods on the manufacturers, by invoking what is called the “Precautionary Principle”.  This states, in part, that “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health, or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.  In this context, the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.”

Due mostly to these fundamentally different approaches, the United States and the European Union are locked in a struggle.  The Bush administration appealed to the World Trade Organization to issue substantial fines on European countries which do not allow importation and sale of GMO food from the US.

It has been repeatedly stated by both government and food industry spokesmen that there have been no documented cases of someone being harmed by GE food.

In light of these claims, an interesting incident occurred in 1996. Pioneer Hybrid, then the largest seed company in the world, wanted to make an improved soybean. Soybeans lack some of the 21 Essential Amino Acids (EAA) that human beings and most other animals need for life, but cannot produce on their own. Most of us get our EAAs from meat. Vegans, however, must carefully balance the types of plants they eat in order to make sure that they get all 21 EAAs in their diet. Pioneer extracted a gene from Brazil nuts in order to increase the soybean’s production of another amino acid, Methionine. They then gene-spliced it into their soybeans in an effort to improve their nutritional value, and hopefully the company’s profitability.

Just before this GE soybean was scheduled to go on the market, it came to the attention of some University of Nebraska scientists. By a stroke of good luck, they just happened to have some blood sera from people who were allergic to Brazil Nuts, and they decided to test these beans on it. They got a strong allergic reaction. Quite a few people are allergic to Brazil nuts, and eating these soybeans might have killed many of them. Obviously, something else besides the gene for the amino acid had been transferred into the soybeans.

When genes are to be introduced into host cells, they do not come alone. After the donor DNA has been cut into many pieces, it is then inserted into bacterial plasmids (circular bacterial DNA), and in this form, the genes can be duplicated to any number necessary. Then, they must overcome the host cell’s defenses against invasion of foreign DNA. This is usually accomplished by attaching a “ferry,” – an infectious virus or bacterium – to that gene. The virus or bacterium can penetrate into the cell and insert the gene into the native DNA. A way also has to be found to identify and select those cells in which the new gene has been inserted and to dispose of all cells that do not contain this gene. This is usually done by attaching a so-called Antibiotic Resistance Marker (ARM) gene. This ARM confers antibiotic resistance, usually to Streptomycin. Treating the cells with Streptomycin then kills all cells which do not possess the desired inserted gene.

Genes do not function all by themselves. Most of them are active during only part of the life of the cell.  They may need the assistance of other genes, called Promoters, which “turn on” or activate them. Therefore, a promoter gene, derived from a virus,  is also attached. These genes may also bring with them uninvited guests. When genes are snipped out of their original DNA chain, the process is not exact. The chain is cut in various places by enzymes, leaving pieces of, or entire neighboring genes, attached to the gene to be inserted. The properties of these DNA Fragments may not be known and their presence may not even be detected.

From this and other evidence, a reasonable person could draw the conclusion that contrary to what the FDA and food industry say, GMOs used as foods are definitely different from regular foods, and need to be tested and labeled to safeguard the health of both ourselves and the rest of the planet.

There are several good arguments why GE foods should be labeled. For one, people should have the right to know what is in the food they feed to their families. But even more importantly, if GE foods are not labeled, and something goes wrong, and people get sick and/or die, what could be done to trace the source of the problem? Epidemiologists, those public health officials whose job it is to track down the causes of diseases and other health hazards, would have no way to trace the problem back to the GE foods.

One more important point. Agribusiness companies such as Monsanto consistently claim that their GE seeds will increase crop yields with these techniques, thus being able to feed the world’s ever-increasing human population and avoid famine and starvation. Unfortunately most of the evidence so far demonstrates that on the contrary, most of them either marginally increase or even decrease yields. One theory of why this occurs is that much of the plant’s energy has been diverted from normal growth into perpetually producing the inserted gene’s product.

A holy grail of molecular biology has been the hope that GE will one day be able to cure inherited diseases by substituting normal genes for the abnormal ones. For the first government-sanctioned attempt at Gene Therapy, children with a hitherto consistently lethal disease were selected. These so-called bubble babies have non-functioning immune systems, and need to be physically isolated from the environment  in artificial enclosures. They usually die in early childhood from infections against which they have no defense. A number of clinical trials were begun around the world, in which ostensibly normal genes were inserted into such children.  Eleven children were selected for one trial in France. Their physicians were optimistic due to the preliminary results. Most of the children showed improved immune functioning. Then one boy came down with Childhood Leukemia. They assumed that this was an unfortunate coincidence. A few months later a second child developed Childhood Leukemia.

Analysis of their DNA showed what had happened. In the first child the Promoter gene accompanying the therapeutic gene had landed square in the middle of an Oncogene called LMO-2, and turned it permanently on. An Oncogene is a gene, probably needed for normal development, which if switched on permanently, causes cancer. Analysis of the other child’s DNA provoked  much more concern. The same Promoter gene landed near the same Oncogene, but not on it. Promoter genes show a gradation of effects, depending how close they are to the gene in question. The closer, the stronger the effect.  All gene therapy trials were immediately stopped.

The results of this trial are exceptionally chilling. It showed that it matters very much where in the host genome the foreign gene is inserted. The fact is that the scientists have no idea of where the gene is going to land; where, if any, there is a “good” place to land; and no way exists at this time to direct it to such a place.  There has been much talk about “targeted gene repair” , but so far scientists have been unsuccessful in directing foreign genes to specific sites, and may never be able to do so.

Perhaps even more importantly, the question arises as to whether the insertion of the Promoter gene in the Oncogene in one case and near the Oncogene in the other, was a coincidence. Considering the vast amounts of DNA in a cell, and that a human cell is estimated to contain 10 – 30,000 genes, it is very unlikely that this was an accident. Therefore, we are left with the possibility that when foreign genes are inserted into a human cell, their destination may not be random, but directed, but not by us. In these cases, it was directed to an Oncogene, with tragic results.

There has lately been some good news in the field of gene therapy. The latest trials of this technique have met with better results.

The prospect of worldwide distribution of GMO’s is particularly troubling because they differ in several crucial respects from pollution by petrochemicals and radioactive substances.  Unlike chemicals, GMOs can replicate themselves, thus producing potentially immense amounts.  They can mutate(change) their genetic constitutions, and therefore, their properties.  Furthermore they can disperse to other environments, either on their own, or by piggybacking on other organisms by becoming integrated into their DNA.  It is quite likely that if  some of them prove to have deleterious effects, it will be impossible to correct the situation, and put them back in Pandora’s box.

In this new world of GE, which we are entering so rapidly, the term caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) takes on a new and ominous meaning.

The Dark Side of GE, 10/29/03

The Biology And Politics Of Breast Cancer


The Reader 6/9/05




                                             by Ken Fischman, Ph.D.


Dedicated to the memories of:

         Vicki Long

         Mary Shackelford

         Barbara Veranium


A Parable for Our Time

         People in a town along a river spotted a person drowning in the turbulent waters and attempted to rescue him. The next day they noticed more and more people struggling in the torrent, and redoubled their efforts to save them. They became experts in river rescue and invented more and more ways to try to retrieve and resuscitate the drowning victims.  In fact, as time went on, they became world-famous for their ever-more innovative river rescue techniques, of which they were quite proud.

         However, don’t you think it odd that in all this time, they never thought to look upstream to find out who was pushing these people in? (adapted from Living Downstream, by Sandra Steingraber,)

         In this article, I invite the reader to walk with me upstream, along the banks of that river.


The Biology of Cancer

         In order for the reader to better understand what cancer is and what its medical and political implications are, it is necessary first to cover a few basic biological concepts. 

         Cancer cells are cells that no longer obey the body’s controls. They revert to a primitive state, and have a tendency for perpetual growth and tumor formation.  Genes are the basic units of heredity within cells. You can think of them as a set of blueprints for building and controlling your body. There are thousands of different kinds of genes in human beings.

         DNA is the chemical stuff that the genes are made of. DNA is an extremely long molecule, made of thousands of subunits.  The genes are attached to each other in groups of hundreds, like a string of pearls. There are 46 of these strings in each human cell and we call them Chromosomes.

         A remarkable property of genes is their ability to make identical copies of themselves.  They distribute these copies, one to each of the new cells produced through a process called Cell Division.  Therefore, every cell in your body contains a duplicate set of genes.

         If every cell in your body has an identical set of genes, then why do some cells look and act differently from each other?  Muscle cells produce a protein, called myosin, that enables them to contract.   Brain cells produce neurotransmitters, which enable them to send signals to other cells.  The explanation is that all of the genes in a cell are not functioning all of the time.  There is one set of genes functioning in a brain cell and a somewhat different set in a muscle cell.

         Which groups are functioning is controlled in two different ways.  The first way is controlled by other genes; the second, is by chemical signals from outside the genes, which may even come from distant parts of the body.  Hormones are the chemical messengers involved in this kind of remote control.

         An Oncogene (“cancer gene”) is one type of controller gene that plays important roles in Breast Cancer (BRCA). It is normally involved in directing growth and cell division.  It is only when genes of this type are malfunctioning that they cause cancer.  You can think of a faulty Oncogene as if it were a stuck accelerator on an automobile.

         There are two types of cancer: (1) inherited and (2) acquired: 

         The inherited type occurs as a defect in the person’s genes and has been passed on to him/her through the egg or sperm from one, or both parents . The defective gene is therefore found in every cell of his body.  This gene can be passed on to the next generation, again through the reproductive cells. Familial BRCA is of this type. 

         Acquired cancer, on the other hand, occurs due to changes that take place in the genes in at least one of the person’s cells during his lifetime. If it does not occur in one of his reproductive cells, it cannot be passed on to the next generation. Examples are: lung cancer, Leukemias, and most BRCAs.

         A mutation is a change in a gene.  The change is passed on to the cells resulting from division of the cell that carries the mutated gene.  When these cells divide in their turn, the mutation is passed on again, and so on and so on, until there can be millions of such cells, each with the identical defect. 

         There are several ways in which these mutations can come about. One way is for a mistake to happen while the DNA is duplicating itself.  Another way is for an environmental agent, like radiation or a chemical, to come in later, and damage the DNA in some way.  A third way is for a mistake to occur later, during cell division.  The chromosomes might break or not be distributed equally between the resulting cells.  Any one of these kinds of mutations, and sometimes all three, can be involved in producing a cancer cell.



 Breast Cancer – A World-Wide Epidemic


         Breast Cancer is a disease that strikes one woman in seven. The incidence of BRCA has risen steadily since World War II. It increased 60% between 1950 and 1988. This increase has nothing to do with increased longevity.  For example, women born in the USA between 1947 – 1958 have three times the rate of breast cancer as their grandmothers had at same age. In 1991, 170,000 American women were diagnosed with BRCA.  The latest available figures are for 2002, with 205,000 new cases.  That is an 20 % increase in eleven years.

         This type of cancer is effecting younger women more and more. BRCA kills more women between the ages of 35-50 than any other disease.  Why has this veritable explosion in BRCA occurred?

         The American Cancer Society (ACS) points to ‘lifestyle’ and heredity as the prime villains.  Their brochures exhort women to: (1) exercise, (2) lower fat in their diets, (3) perform breast self-examinations, (4) examine their family history, and (5) receive regular mammograms in order to detect BRCA, etc. Yet, the great majority of BRCAs cannot be explained by either inheritance or so-called ‘lifestyle’ factors. Let’s examine a few circumstances:

         The list of chemicals and other environmental agents, known or suspected to be cancer-causing is a very long one.  Yet, in all this time, only about a dozen have been banned by U.S. government agencies.  Here are just a few of the more egregious cases.

         Twenty seven years ago evidence was presented that women working in the plastics industry and exposed to Vinyl Chloride (VC), faced an increased risk of BRCA. (J. Occup. Med., 1977). VC was acknowledged by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to be a human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent). It was not banned however, and enormous quantities of it are still being produced and distributed around the world.

         Polychlorinated Biphenyls, better known as PCBs, are strongly suspected of causing BRCA.  General Electric dumped PCBs into the Hudson River in New York state until the 1970s.  There are an estimated one million pounds lying on the bottom of a 40 mile stretch of the river .

         Well known risk factors for BRCA are: (1) early 1st menstruation, (2) late menopause,  and (3) late or no childbirths. What these factors have in common is that they all increase a woman’s lifetime exposure to estrogens. 

         Estrogens are hormones, secreted by a woman’s ovaries each month. It effects only cells with Estrogen Receptors on their surface. The hormone attaches to the receptor. Then the Estrogen-Receptor complex penetrates into the nucleus and activates one particular set of genes while turning off another set. The net effect is to increase cell proliferation in: (a) the vagina, (b) the uterus, and (c) the breast. Estrogen therefore stimulates ovulation, menstruation, and breast development. 

         A full term pregnancy early in a woman’s life protects against BRCA. Why? The current theory is that breasts do not completely develop until the last few months of the first pregnancy.  Once they are developed, cell division in them slows, and because DNA in non-dividing cells is less sensitive to damage from radiation and chemicals, these women are less vulnerable to BRCA.

         Early onset of puberty is also a strong risk factor for BRCA. Consider the following  facts: The average age of female puberty in the 1940s was 13 – 14 years. At present it is 10 – 11 among whites, and even earlier among black girls. Some possible explanations are:

         Since WWII, over 70,000 Synthetic Organic Chemicals (SOCs) have been produced, some in enormous quantities, and distributed all over the world.  They have infiltrated our air, water, food, and our very bodies.

          (1) many pesticides, herbicides and other SOCs are endocrine-imitators, (i.e they have estrogenic effects).  SOCs may hasten the onset of puberty. There is strong evidence that Atrazine, the most widely used herbicide in the world, has this type of effect.  Despite this, the EPA has recently refused to ban it.

         (2) Americans eat a greater proportion of meat in their diets than any other people. Chickens and cattle are often treated with hormones in order to make them grow faster.         

         Women who have fatty diets have greater risk for BRCA.  The NCI, and many other authorities, have concluded from this that fat causes cancer, and they have told women to change their lifestyles by doing more exercise and eating less fatty foods.  Some scientists however believe that it is not the fat, but what is in the fat that causes BRCA. Many SOCs are fat-soluble, and therefore tend to concentrate in fatty tissue such as the breast and bone marrow.  The more obese you are, the more carcinogens you accumulate. (Carcinogen concentration in fatty tissues may also explain why the incidence of Multiple Myeloma, a hitherto rare cancer of the bone marrow, has increased ten-fold in the past few decades) . 

         SOCs not only lodge in fatty tissues, they become biomagnified (concentrated) there.) In addition, SOCs are not easily metabolized and excreted.  Therefore, they may linger in tissues for years. Some researchers have called fat the body’s hazardous waste site.


Inherited Breast cancers


         You have probably heard of  Breast Cancer Families, in which several generations of women develop BRCA.  Two BRCA genes have been identified: BRCA-1 & BRCA-2. Women who possess BRCA-1 also have a higher risk for Ovarian cancer, but this does not appear to be so for those who have BRCA-2. Women who inherit either mutant gene are at much greater risk earlier in their lives for subsequent steps in the carcinogenesis process (described further on in this article). This is demonstrated by the high percentage of women possessing the gene, who get BRCA in their 20s (40%), compared with the much lower percentage of women who have the gene, who get BRCA in their 80s(1%).

         A good way to distinguish between inherited and environmentally-induced diseases is to compare populations in different parts of the world. It has been observed for example, that BRCA rates in the U.S. are thirty times higher than in parts of Africa.  We can also evaluate  groups of people before and after they migrate from an area of high disease incidence to one of low incidence, or vice versa.  BRCA rates rise in Jewish women who migrate from  North Africa to Israel; rates decrease when English women migrate to Australia.  Their genes  of course remain the same. Only their environment has changed.        

         As previously mentioned, inherited Breast Cancers were the predominant form of BRCA before the 1940s.  Their incidence has not increased in the ensuing years.  They are now a tiny minority of all BRCA cases, probably no more than 5 – 10%, and effecting only about 1/3 of 1% of all women. The other 90 – 95% of BRCAs are classified by US government agencies as ‘sporadic’, meaning that the cause is unknown.

         Saying that most BRCAs are ‘sporadic’ reminds me of a story about a novice boxer.  His manager sends him into the ring against a much more experienced opponent.  He is getting badly beaten.  At the end of one round he comes back to his corner with his nose bleeding, one eye almost closed, and bruises all over.  His manager tries to buck him up.  “You’re doing great kid” he says “You have him on the run. He hasn’t laid a glove on you.”  The kid turns around and looks at the manager.  “Yeh?”, he says, “Well you better keep an eye on the referee because someone out there is sure beatin the crap out of me!”                 


  Mechanism of Carcinogenesis

         Normal cells do not become cancer cells in one swoop. For example, Benzo(a)pyrene is the principal cancer-causing agent in tobacco smoke.  It and Croton oil are much more effective in inducing cancer when applied sequentially, rather than together. This is evidence that there is more than one step in cancer production.

         Mutations are usually chance events that could occur in any one of the cell’s thousands of genes. Routine errors could be made during DNA replication, or a gene could be damaged by a carcinogenic  agent.  The first step toward cancer is a mutation.  This is obvious because tumors continue to grow even after the carcinogen is removed.  Therefore, an event has occurred that is being passed from generation to generation of its cells.                          


         Another clue that cancer is a multi-step process is the long lag time, or latent period after first exposure to a carcinogen before a recognizable cancer develops.  It may take many years.  This lag time occurs because two or more rare chance events have to take place in order for a cell to become cancerous.  The probability that two rare events will both happen is the product of the chance for each of them to happen by itself. 

         A simple illustration of this is flipping a penny.  If you flip it once, the chance that it will come up heads is 1/2. If you flip it twice, the chance that it will come up heads both times is 1/2 X 1/2, or 1/4.  Imagine then that if the chances that each of these two mutations occurring in the same cell is a couple of thousand to one, the probability of both happening is a very long shot indeed. Time however, is an additional factor.  The longer the cell lives, the more likely it is that the second mutation will eventually occur.

          The stages for inducing a cancer cell are called: (1) Initiation, (2) Promotion, and (3) Progression

         1.  Initiation is usually a small subtle lesion in DNA. There are no visible changes, but it can be recognized by the body and reacted to.  The immune system may recognize changes in the cell surface and then destroy the aberrant cell. Any weakening in these defense mechanisms could lead to retention of initiated and therefore potentially cancerous cells, making it more likely that some of them will survive to reach the next stage of carcinogenesis.        

         2.  Promotion unfolds over long time period and does not involve mutations, but encourages changes in which certain genes are activated. Promotion can be stimulated by substances like Estrogens.  Here is the good news.  When the influence of these substances is removed, cells usually revert back to the previous stage.

         3. Progression – Mutations pile up at the molecular (i.e. DNA) level and chromosomes become increasingly damaged and unstable.  Some of these changed cells become cancer cells. The production of many different chromosome abnormalities in the same tumor has the effect of making it a heterogeneous group of cells with different properties.   It makes diagnosis & treatment more difficult.

          Many carcinogens have multiple roles. They can take part in more than one of these steps, and do so at: (1) different times, and (2) different concentrations. Dioxins, which are common byproducts of  incineration, suppress immunity, as well as induce mutations. This is why there is no such thing as a “safe” dose of a carcinogen. Similar exposures may pose very different threats to different people or at different times. e.g., those whose cells are already initiated, may react to trace amounts and move to the next stages.

         We are constantly exposed to more than one type of carcinogen at the same time and to many exposures of the same carcinogens over periods of time. There may be cumulative effects from multiple exposures.  DDT and another carcinogen, called AAPA, accelerate tumor formation when applied simultaneously, although neither alone is capable of doing so.  This effect is called synergism.



 A Real War on Cancer


         For many years, BRCA research went under-funded and the whole issue of BRCA was virtually ignored by both government and private research institutions.

         Finally, in the early nineties, women began to take note of the success of the Gay Community in turning these institutions’ attention to AIDs research.  Women quickly showed that they had learned a lesson in the politics of disease.  The Breast Cancer Fund, founded by women, emphasizes that women must stop thinking of BRCA as only a personal tragedy, and demand more emphasis on true prevention, removal of carcinogens from our environment.

         October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Women are showered at that time with literature emphasizing prevention and early detection. The message is: get a mammogram, go on a low fat diet, exercise, and cut back on alcohol consumption.

         There is not one word about primary prevention though – removing chemical carcinogens from our environment.  Is this merely an oversight?

         The chief sponsor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is AstraZenica, a giant multinational corporation, which manufactures the BRCA chemo- prevention drug, Tamoxifen.  It also produces herbicides and fungicides. In addition, AstraZenica now owns the Salick chain of cancer treatment centers.

         This seems like a cozy arrangement for AstraZenica.  It produces suspected BRCA carcinogens. It is also involved in the treatment of cancer, and it is now selling a BRCA-prevention drug.  It also gets all kinds of good publicity from Breast Cancer Prevention Month, and uses that to deflect our attention away from the environmental causes of cancer.

                  Sandra Steingraber, author of “Living Downstream”, a book documenting the environmental causes of cancer, states that  “By emphasizing personal habits rather than carcinogens, they frame the cause of the disease as a problem of behavior rather than as a problem of exposure to disease-causing agents…. It presumes that the ongoing contamination of our air, food, & water is an immutable fact of the human condition to which we must accommodate ourselves.”


How Can We Really Win The “War On Cancer”?

         The most important action we can take is to make the ‘Precautionary Principle’ the law of the land. The Principle states, in part, that "When an activity raises threats of harm to human health, or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.  In this context,

the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of

proof." The European Union has already invoked the Precautionary Principle, first against Genetically Engineered food, and now against suspected carcinogenic agents.

          Last, but not least, join an activist organization that will represent your interests. The next time that you are asked to donate to a ‘cure for cancer’, you might consider the Breast Cancer Fund when you ponder where your money will be most effective.