IV Vitamin C: A Rising Treatment for Cancer

By Matt Erickson
March 7, 2017

integrative medicine Studies show that taking high doses of vitamin C intravenously can improve results from cancer treatments, among others.

About 13 years ago, Olive Burns was diagnosed with stage III ovarian cancer. At the time, she and her husband spent their days taking care of their young grandson while his parents were at work. He was just a toddler.

When she received her diagnosis, Burns hoped she could live long enough for her grandson to remember the time he’d spent with her.

Now, her grandson is a teenager. And Burns is still here. “He’s 16 now, and a wonderful kid,” she says. “We enjoy him so much.”

Burns credits her recovery to a treatment she’d never heard of 13 years ago: intravenous (IV) vitamin C. She was one of the first patients in Kansas City to receive the therapy from The University of Kansas Health System – the first academic medical center in the United States to offer IV vitamin C.  Jeanne Drisko, MD, director of integrative medicine, brought IV vitamin C to the health system around the year 2000. The therapy’s history in the United States stretches back more than 70 years, but it has only started to attain widespread acceptance in the medical community during the past two decades – thanks in part to research done by Dr. Drisko and her collaborator, Qi Chen, PhD, an associate professor at The University of Kansas Medical Center.      
           
The University of Kansas Health System offers IV vitamin C not just as a complementary cancer therapy (in combination with chemotherapy and other conventional treatments), but also as a treatment for adrenal fatigue, infectious disease and other health problems.
         Can you benefit from vitamin C?
Vitamin C is a remarkably safe, effective therapy that can be used for a range of different health conditions. Learn more about this breakthrough therapy and how it may benefit you. 
  
How it works
When vitamin C enters the bloodstream intravenously, instead of being consumed orally, it takes on a different power. When taken orally, it must pass through the digestive system. The gut does not absorb it very efficiently, especially in people with digestive problems. And after it is absorbed, it is excreted quickly by the kidneys and very little actually makes its way to the bloodstream.

When vitamin C is delivered directly into a vein, however, it bypasses the gut and kidneys. This causes a drastic increase of vitamin C levels in the bloodstream – levels thousands of times higher than can be achieved with an oral supplement.

At such high levels, the vitamin does something curious: It transforms from an antioxidant into a pro-oxidant. This means it attacks and damages cells rather than protecting them. But it doesn’t damage normal cells, Dr. Drisko explains. Rather, it attacks cancer cells or other abnormal cells.

“Normal cells have the machinery and chemistry to stamp out that oxidative effect,” Dr. Drisko says. “But cancer cells and abnormal cells, because they are more primitive, don’t have that ability. They are harmed, while normal cells are unharmed.”

This process, which is still not entirely understood, is why vitamin C can be a cancer-killing agent for some people. Researchers have established that the therapy is safe.

“There do not seem to be any significant adverse events, which is pretty remarkable for a drug therapy,” says Dr. Drisko.
         Get the facts
  • Will IV vitamin C work for my cancer?
  • Can children receive treatment?
  • Will my insurance pay for vitamin C infusions?
Get answers to these and other frequently asked questions about IV vitamin C therapy. 
 
Long journey toward acceptance
Much is still unknown about the effects of IV vitamin C. This is because the therapy was not accepted in the medical establishment for several decades.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, two-time Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling advocated for the therapy as a treatment for different conditions. But two clinical trials during the 1970s demonstrated no effect from high-dose vitamin C. Research stalled for about two decades.

Alternative and complementary medicine practitioners, however, continued to offer the therapy. One of those practitioners was Hugh Riordan, MD, an integrative physician who practiced in Wichita. He teamed with Mark Levine, MD, a researcher for the National Institutes of Health who was studying vitamin C, to publish case reports about patients benefiting from IV vitamin C therapy in the 1990s. Then, Dr. Levine made a discovery: The 1970s clinical trials had tested high doses of vitamin C taken orally, not intravenously. It was clear that the vitamin had much different effects when delivered directly into the bloodstream.

Since then, research on IV vitamin C has taken off.

“It’s becoming more accepted,” Dr. Drisko says, “Including at other academic medical centers.”

Rapid growth
Integrative medicine at The University of Kansas Health System has seen rapid growth in the use of IV vitamin C treatment. When the treatment became available in the early 2000s, the clinic had space for only one infusion patient at a time. Now, as many as 10 can undergo treatment at once, and an isolation room is available for patients who might have an infection.

The treatment is not right for every cancer patient, but for some, it can be a powerful cancer-fighting weapon.


Hundreds of patients receive IV vitamin C infusions at The University of Kansas Health System each year, in doses ranging from 10 grams to 125 grams, and sometimes in combination with other nutrients. Depending on a person’s health issue, infusions can range from several times per week or just once a week, with each treatment taking an hour or longer, depending on dosage.

Potential infusion patients start with a consultation and blood testing to determine if the therapy is appropriate and safe. The treatment is not right for every cancer patient, but for some, it can be a powerful cancer-fighting weapon.

“I’ve seen remarkable recovery with infectious disease, particularly if it’s started early in the course of the infection,” Dr. Drisko says. “People feel better emotionally when they’re taking IV vitamin C and report more energy. I’ve also seen some remarkable recoveries from cancer – with the caveat that it doesn’t always work, because cancer is a chronic, complex, horrible disorder.”

But for Olive Burns, it was a vital component of cancer care.

“Without IV vitamin C, I don’t think I would have lived,” Burns says. “I think the vitamin C helped me fight the cancer and gave me a life to have.”

A history of IV vitamin C treatment

1948: Fred R. Klenner, MD, a physician in North Carolina, published his first paper on intravenous vitamin C treatment, describing his use of the therapy to treat a variety of viral diseases, including polio.

1970: Linus Pauling, former Nobel Prize winner in chemistry and peace, published Vitamin C and the Common Cold, promoting the use of high-dose vitamin C therapy.

1979: Together with Scottish physician Ewan Cameron, MD, Pauling publishes Cancer and Vitamin C, which reports that cancer patients given high doses of vitamin C outlived patients who didn’t receive the treatment.

Late 1970s and early 1980s: Clinical trials of high-dose vitamin C as a cancer treatment find no effect. Critically, though, patients in these trials received vitamin C orally, not intravenously.

1990s: Dr. Mark Levine, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health, discovers that intravenously delivered vitamin C can result in much higher bloodstream levels of the vitamin than when it is taken orally.

1998: Dr. Jeanne Drisko joins The University of Kansas Medical Center and begins conducting IV vitamin C research.

Early 2000s: Dr. Drisko begins offering IV vitamin C treatment to patients through The University of Kansas Health System, which becomes the first academic medical center in the country to offer the therapy.
 


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