About 30 years ago, Garry Buettner and late friend and colleague Larry Oberley proposed that free radicals are not always bad for the body. They proposed that free radicals are necessary for normal functioning of cells and tissues, but at inappropriate levels, they will result in an imbalance that may lead to disease.
Buettner, professor of radiation oncology and faculty member in human toxicology, helped develop the free radical theory of cancer in 1979. “Essentially, the rate of free radical production and the level of antioxidants in cancer cells are out of balance in such a way that this imbalance results in inappropriate cell division,” Buettner said. “This idea has held with time; it is the basis for a clinical trial for the treatment of pancreatic cancer, which has just been started here at Iowa, led by Dr. Joseph Cullen.”
This idea goes back to Buettner’s laboratory experiences with vitamin C early in his career. During this work, he realized that only small amounts of some metals can cause drastic changes in the chemistry of vitamin C and other related antioxidants. He found a method to remove contaminating metals from his solutions and developed a protocol, based on the loss of vitamin C, to verify that his solutions were free of these catalytic metals. This led to a new understanding of the chemistry of vitamin C and how high-dose vitamin C could be used to treat cancer.
His lab’s long-term goals are to determine the types of cancer that could benefit from this approach and to determine how best to design treatments that would include high dose vitamin C.