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Pushed to the Side

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When Jonas Salk was asked who owned the patent on his polio vaccine in 1955, he replied that such a cure could no more be patented than the sun could be, says LiveScience's Natalie Wolchover. Three years ago, University of Alberta cancer researcher Evangelos Michelakis discovered that a common, nontoxic chemical called dichloroacetate, or DCA, inhibited the growth of cancerous tumors in mice. But like Salk, Michelakis didn't patent this discovery because DCA is a common, widely-used chemical — in other words, says Wolchover, it's "like the sun." Because it's unpatentable, research into DCA's potential as a cancer drug has been almost nonexistent. The way DCA works is by disrupting the way cancer cells metabolize sugar, causing them to self-destruct, Wolchover says. Michelakis and his colleagues published a study last year in Science Translational Medicine showing that DCA extended the lives of four out of five study participants. But while pharmaceutical companies aren't necessarily ignoring DCA, they aren't exactly lining up to make a drug out of it either, Wolchover says, because in the end, there's no profit in it. "If DCA proves to be effective, then it will be a ridiculously cheap drug," Michelakis says. That said, however, "grassroots funding" is helping researchers look more deeply into the possibilites of DCA, Wolchover says. And despite the lack of clinical trials, some clinicians are even prescribing DCA off-label to their cancer patients. "Small trials and case studies won't be enough, however, to prove DCA works. Further investigation into the drug's efficacy is necessary, and without the help of Big Pharma, it will have to happen in an unusual way," Wolchover says. But with the example of Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine in front of them, Michelakis and his colleagues say they believe there is a way to combat a deadly disease, without making a profit.

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