Isotope 1H, common or garden hydrogen, comprises 99.98% of all hydrogen. It is in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Isotope 3H (tritium) is unstable and mildly radioactive, which is why it is used in luminous watches. From a nutrition and health perspective, however, the most interesting is 2H aka deuterium. It is also called heavy hydrogen, though with a molecular weight of 2 the deuteron is only heavy when compared to 1H.
For the last 3 decades or so deuterium has been positioned, rather controversially, as a medical treatment. I had been looking for a new book of deuteronomy, and in 2021 Dr Gabor Somlyai published ‘Deuterium Depletion, A New Way in Curing Cancer’. Gabor’s treatise, which I have in my library, runs to a fascinating 240 pages. If I were to tell the story in short form, it might start like this …
‘In the late ‘80’s, rich deposits of deuterium were allegedly found in the Mindanao Trench, the world’s second deepest oceanic valley. The sales pitch: “The Philippines is rich in deuterium, the white ‘gold’ of the nation … a natural water that serves as a nuclear gas and can be the cleanest fuel energy in the world” (1).
It is amazing that anyone took this seriously. Never underestimate, however, the greed of politicians and the tribal gullibility of those who believe in them.
Deuterium mining, promoted by Imelda Marcos (the lady of a thousand shoes), her son Bongbong and the Philippine Deuterium Divine Wealth Association, became the subject of The Hydrogen Research, Promotion and Development Acts which then Senator Bongbong filed in 2010 and 2013. This really did happen, even though the story had been definitively busted by science journalist Alan Robles in 2004 (2).
The acts failed, but in 2017 the deuterium zombie came back to life in a remarkably stupid anti-China editorial in the Manilla Times (3), and is currently being reanimated (again) by now President Bongbong (4).
But there is more to deuterium than a fool’s white gold rush. In the mid-90’s, stories started to circulate suggesting that deuterium – or the lack of it – might be a cure for cancer. Was this also a scam?
That’s a bit more complicated … and while sceptical groups such as the Naked Scientists maintain that it is an unadulterated hoax (ie 5), I think they might have been in too much of a rush to dismiss deuterium. I think there may be something in it.
Most elements exist in isotopic forms. Isotopism in the heavier elements is not biologically relevant, apart from the radioactive isotopes. 13C, for example, differs so little in mass from 12C that life forms cannot easily distinguish between the two forms (6). Carbon isotope ratios in animals and animal remains can be used for dating, and to map migration routes (7) and dietary patterns (8), but they do not affect biological function except when very extensively modified, ie in the lab (6).
When it comes to hydrogen and deuterium, however, the extra neutron in deuterium doubles the mass of the atom. This is a difference which living organisms can easily detect and respond to. A clinical study carried out in 1988 showed that raising deuterium levels in the body by as little as 0.1% triggered a range of adverse effects (9).
This is not surprising. In human serum deuterium occurs at 13 mm/L (10, 11), which is high compared to potassium, calcium and magnesium at 4, 2 and 1 mm/L respectively (12). Given this, one would expect 2H to be functional in some way; and the fact that there is a strong (25x) deuterium gradient between the mitochondrial inter-membrane space and the mitochondrial matrix (13) is a clear signal that 2H does indeed have defined biological roles.
The ability of raised deuterium levels to slow cancer growth was first demonstrated in 1957 (14).
At that time the mode of action was unknown and the work was sidelined, but as the years passed a reasonably coherent set of clues started to emerge.
During the ‘60’s, various scientists showed that high levels of deuterium slow most (if not all) metabolic reactions, due to the increased energy needed to break 2H bonds (15). By the ‘70’s, it had been established that raising deuterium levels reduced cell growth rates and slowed cell division (15).
In 1990, a Prague group found that raising deuterium specifically blocked cell membrane active transport systems (16). Three years later a Hungarian team published two papers which took this further (17, 18).
The Budapest lab showed that the 1H/2H ratio and the resulting rate of transport of hydrogen across cell membranes was critically involved in cell division. They also reported that in a group of 17 mice with xenografted tumors given deuterium-depleted water (DDW) to drink, 10 of the animals went into complete remission. This was due to a slowing of cancer cell growth, likely combined with increased apoptosis (19).
This was the start of a number of studies designed to explore the possibility of using deuterium depletion (DD) as a cancer treatment. In 2008 the Hungarians published a report of 4 patients with lung cancer and brain metastases, in whom low-deuterium water given in conjunction with conventional chemo significantly extended survival time (20).
Five years later, researchers from Guangdong Medical College showed that DD inhibited human epithelial cancer cell proliferation, migration and invasion, and did so by reducing the expression of matrix-metalloproteinase and inducing cell cycle arrest (21). That same year the Hungarian team ran out a retrospective clinical trial of 129 lung cancer patients, and reported that the mean survival time of these patients more than doubled that of historical controls (22).
A few months afterwards, a lab in Tehran published some rather confusing results where DD alone had no effects on one cancer cell line but significantly enhanced the cytotoxic effects of the anti-cancer drug paclitaxel (23). Another Iranian group out of Kerman (24), found that DD remarkably increased the cancer cell-killing effects of NSAID’s, drugs associated with reduced cancer incidence, by inducing apoptosis via well-characterised pathways.
In 2019 a second Tehran team showed that DD induced cell cycle arrest in cancer cell cultures, and enhanced the effects of the anti-metabolite 5-FU (25); and that same year, detailed mechanistic work out of the Karolinska provided further insight into how deuterium depletion might be working (26, 27).
According to the Stockholm unit, DD works by reversing the normally positive deuterium gradient across inner mitochondrial membranes. This leads to an increased export of protons from the matrix into intermembrane space and an increase in the mitochondrial membrane potential, enhancing the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). The resulting oxidative stress slows growth and induces apoptosis in cells vulnerable to oxidative stress; a property shared by many cancer cells.
This idea, first developed by Abdullah Olgun at the Gulhane School of Medicine in Ankara (10), was subsequently supported by independent and complementary research at the University of Bologna (28).
In 2021 the Hungarians returned with a very interesting report (29) which documented the effects of DD on pancreas cancer cell lines in vitro, and DDW in eighty-six pancreatic adenocarcinoma patients. DD was clearly effective in slowing cancer cell growth, and DDW + conventional chemo trebled survival time compared to the group which received chemo alone (29).
The following year they were back again, this time with a sprawling composite paper which included in vitro, pre-clinical and retrospective clinical trial results involving 204 cancer patients in remission (30). DD prevented the expression of cancer-related genes in cancer cell lines, DDW reduced the incidence of carcinogen-induced tumors in mice and it appeared to reduce the risk of tumor recurrence in humans, although the numbers of cases were too small to reach statistical significance.
I have not given a full list of all the published cancer studies here, and the results of these studies are not always completely consistent.
The overall body of evidence, however, strongly supports the idea that DD (and hence DDW) has anti-proliferative activity.
DD does not work against all cancer lines. There seems to be an optimal range of 1H/2H ratios below and above which therapeutic effects are reduced, and some initially sensitive cancer cells may eventually be able to develop resistance to it (31). Nonetheless, I believe it can be legitimately regarded as an adjunctive cancer therapy, especially in conjunction with other treatments which work by inducing oxidative stress in cancer cells. And, it is safe enough to enable self-administration.
What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with diet?
Different foods contain different levels of deuterium, reflecting the ability (need?) of different species to partition deuterium into different tissue/metabolic compartments.
The humble potato is high on the list, delivering deuterium at 150 parts per million (ppm). Flour scores 150 ppm, sugar 146, cottage cheese 136, salads 136, olive oil 130 and butter 124, with pork fat one of the lowest at 118 (32).
If deuterium intakes are important in determining the risk of acquiring cancer, the above distribution of 2H suggests that a ketogenic diet might be cancer-protective. This has indeed been mooted by certain vested interests (ie 33, 34), but the data are rather confusing. Keto appears to hinder some cancers but help others (35), and is not currently recommended by many oncologists.
Those same interests suggest that the substantial increase in the frequency of cancer may reflect our increased intakes of deuterium in the high sugar and starch content of ultra-processed foods, but this is, in my view, wildly reductionist. There are so many problems with today’s industrial diet, and so many dietary and lifestyle variables that contribute to our high risk of cancer, that identifying falling deuterium intake as a causative link is impossible; though it may be a minor contributory one.
I do not, therefore, believe in a DD-diet. But as DDW is on the margins of diet, because it is very safe and because the balance of evidence does indicate an anti-cancer effect, I believe it merits serious consideration for anyone suffering from cancer.
From Gabor’s Book of Deuteronomy, 2:49-3: ‘Traffic cannot be controlled exclusively using green lights. Red lights also have an important role … In healthy cells mitochondria keep cell division under control.’
Next week: The Gut / Brain / Womb connection; making pregnancy safer.
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