Starving cancer: Dominic D’Agostino at TEDxTampaBay

Starving cancer: Dominic D’Agostino at TEDxTampaBay


Translator: Marta Gysel
Reviewer: Carlo Schiatti Navy SEAL divers are the best
at what they do. But they have a problem that limits their ability
to do their mission. Our research focused
on solving the problem and it led to an unexpected
path of discovery for neurological diseases and cancer. The problem results
from the specialized equipment that the Navy SEAL divers use, including the oxygen rebreather. The advantage of the rebreather
is that there are no bubbles so it’s very quiet and helps the SEAL
evade detection from the enemy. The disadvantage
of the oxygen rebreather is that the high levels of oxygen and the pressure
from the undersea environment causes a potential for a seizure. These seizures occur
with little or no warning and there is no effective
mitigation strategy to prevent them. So the question we ask is
why do the seizures occur and how can we prevent them. To answer this question required funding from the Office of Naval Research to develop a microscope that was installed
inside a hyperbaric chamber, or a high-pressure chamber. This chamber could simulate
the underwater environment and the pressure
of the underwater environment. Using this technology we demonstrated
that neurons in the brain, when subjected to high pressure
and high oxygen, are overstimulated. The overstimulation of the brain from the high oxygen and pressure causes a decrease
in brain energy metabolism. When this happens, it causes the potential for a seizure. These oxygen seizures occur
with little or no warning and there is no effective way
to prevent them. These drug resistant seizures are similar to epilepsy patients that have drug resistant seizures, and in the case of patients they can use a special diet
to prevent these seizures. One example of the patient
who used diet is Mike Dancer. Mike used a variety of antiseizure
medication, and the medication caused
severe side effects and was not able to control his seizures. So, due to the severe side effects Mike stopped
all the antiseizure medication and when he did it, he saw an increase in his seizure frequency. At about this time Mike discovered there was is a dietary intervention, that he could use to control his seizures. And when he did it,
he found a sharp decrease in his seizure frequency. I’m happy to say that Mike
has been on the diet for 5 years now, and he’s been managing his epilepsy for 5 years without medication. So what is the ketogenic diet? Compared to a normal diet, the ketogenic diet
is very low in carbohydrates and it’s very high in fat. People have used the diet for years to help them regulate their body weight, reduce their body weight, and control or reduce
their blood glucose levels. But most importantly, the ketogenic diet is proven
to control seizures, when drugs fail. No organization has done more
to educate the public about therapeutic potential
of the ketogenic diet than The Charlie Foundation started by Hollywood producer
Jim Abrahams. Jim’s son Charlie
was stricken with seizures. They were so severe and no amount of drugs could help him. So Jim looked into alternative approaches to manage his son’s seizures. And with his research he discovered that the ketogenic diet was being used at Johns Hopkins Hospital, so it was a treatment that was used specifically for pediatric epilepsy. So Jim took Charlie
to Johns Hopkins Hospital and they worked pretty closely
with a dietician there, and within a short amount of time Charlie’s seizures were under control. And Charlie was actually
cured of his epilepsy at Johns Hopkins Hospital with the use of the ketogenic diet. So Charlie is actually off the diet
completely today, and he remains seizure-free. The ketogenic diet is effective for a variety of neurological disorders including Glucose Transporter
Type 1 Deficiency Syndrome. Children with this disorder lack the ability to transport
glucose into the brain. So their brains are literally
starved of glucose and this causes a potential for seizures. So it’s known that, you know, the brain can use glucose
as the primary fuel, but it can readily adapt
to using ketones for energy. So in this way the brain
is like a hybrid engine, right? So it uses glucose as the primary fuel but during periods
of limited glucose availability the brain can readily adapt to using this alternative fuel source. So we are exploiting
the neuroprotective effects of ketones by developing ketone supplements
for the Navy SEAL divers for oxygen seizures. So the advantage
of the ketone supplement is that you can circumvent
the need for the dietary restriction that’s required to elevate and sustain blood levels of ketones. There are many therapeutic
applications of ketones because nearly all healthy cells in a body can use ketones for fuel
as an alternative energy source. Surprisingly, cancer cells
lack the ability to transition from using glucose for fuel
to using ketones. So, in a way, cancer cells are like
damaged hybrid engines. They use large amounts of glucose much more than healthy cells, and they lack this ability
to transition over to an alternative fuel source. So we can say that “sugar addiction” is really the Achilles heel
of cancer cells. This observation inspired me in the lab, and I asked a question, I wondered, why very little attention
was being given to nutrition to exploit this weakness of cancer cells. So, it turns out that the sugar addiction was actually observed over 80 years ago
by Otto Warburg. So, Otto Warburg did experiments, he won a Nobel prize
for these experiments, demonstrating that [cancer] cells
are damaged in their metabolism and the damage in their metabolism results in high amounts of sugar uptake. More recently, Thomas Seyfried
from Boston College has been a pioneer, really,
in validating Warburg’s hypothesis and proving that cancer
is a metabolic disease. In Tom’s experiments, he demonstrated that there is a specific, metabolic defect of cancer cells
as glucose dependency, and that we can target that with a variety of non-toxic
alternative approaches. Oncologists target this weakness
in cancer cells, which is excess glucose consumption, with something called a FGD-PET Scan. The PET Scan actually shows the excess consumption
of glucose in cancer cells relative to the healthy tissues
surrounding it. So this allows for the imaging
of excess glucose consumption that oncologists use. But this information really isn’t used to exploit the cancer
for a treatment modality. The excess glucose consumption
of cancer cells allows them to thrive and proliferate in a low oxygen environment. Another interesting observation
that we made in the lab is that high pressures of oxygen are actually damaging to cancer cells. We’ve demonstrated that when high levels of oxygen
are given to cancer cells that they overproduce
oxygen free radicals, and these are damaging
to the cell membrane. At high magnification we can observe bumps on the surface of the membrane that are indicative of membrane damage. What’s most interesting is
that the same level of oxygen that damaged the cancer cells was non-toxic to the healthy brain cells. These observations inspired us to test the combination of the ketogenic diet
and hyperbaric oxygen in a mouse model of metastatic cancer. The glowing regions on the screen, show the growth and the spread of metastatic cancer cells. This study demonstrated
the therapeutic efficacy of a new, non-toxic, alternative approach to cancer management. So what started out
as a Navy SEAL project and then led to a promising
mitigation strategy for the oxygen seizures in the form of ketone supplements ultimately led us down a path to this unexpected discovery. So the question is, can we manage cancer
with non-toxic strategies? I believe that we can. And I’ve been inspired by a number of seizure patients
and cancer patients that have used these alternative methods to manage their incurable diseases. Future treatments and prevention
of many diseases may fall back on the ancient
wisdom of Hippocrates, when he said, “Let food be thy medicine.” Thank you. (Applause)