Multivitamins and antioxidants may promote cancer growth in late-stage patients, warns Nobel laureate

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Renowned geneticist James (Jim) Watson warns that antioxidants might cause, rather than cure, cancers in some cases.
Renowned geneticist James (Jim) Watson warns that antioxidants might cause, rather than cure, cancers in some cases.

Related tags Cancer Antioxidant Dna

Antioxidant nutritional supplements may actually promote cancer progression in late-stage cancers patients, according to a new research paper published by Nobel laureate James Watson.

Watson, who received a Nobel prize for his role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, suggests nutritional supplements containing antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E may in fact block late-stage cancer treatment and promote cancer progression, thus lowering life expectancy and cancer survival.

“In light of the recent data strongly hinting that much of late-stage cancer's untreatability may arise from its possession of too many antioxidants, the time has come to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer,”​ writes the renowned geneticist.

“All in all, the by now vast number of nutritional intervention trials using the antioxidants beta-carotene, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E and selenium have shown no obvious effectiveness in preventing gastrointestinal cancer nor in lengthening mortality.”

In fact, Watson asserts that such supplements seem to slightly shorten the lives of those who take them, adding that he considers his latest work as being “among my most important work since the double helix.”

“Future data may, in fact, show that antioxidant use, particularly that of vitamin E, leads to a small number of cancers that would not have come into existence but for antioxidant supplementation,”​ he suggests.

“Blueberries best be eaten because they taste good, not because their consumption will lead to less cancer.”


The suggested health benefits of antioxidant supplements have previously been put in their role in protecting against damage from free radicals such as reactive oxygen species(ROS).

ROS, which are produced from the breakdown of foods or by environmental exposures, are suggested to cause damage to healthy cells and damage DNA and are at the centre of many theories of disease.

In healthy cells, it has been suggected that antioxidants ’mop up’ excess ROS and therefore act to keep cells healthy and reduce the risk of disease from ROS damage.

However, Watson’s research suggests that in people with cancer, high levels of these antioxidants may be detrimental. His theory on antioxidants is based on the fact that the majority of anticancer treatments aim to generate ROS, which triggers cancer cell death.

High levels of antioxidants in cancer cells therefore will allow them to block the actions of anticancer therapies, meaning cancer cells survive for longer and potentially moving to other body locations.

Watson suggests his study has important implications not only for the management and treatment of cancer, but for the food industry, who may find that consumers are turned off the ‘antioxidant’ message as it becomes more complex.

Source: Open Biology
“Oxidants, antioxidants and the current incurability of metastatic cancers”
Author: Jim Watson

What do you think of Jim Watson's suggestions on antioxidants? In addition to leaving comments below you can contact our science reporter Nathan Gray via email​ or twitter​ to share your thoughts...

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He should have quit while he was ahead

Posted by Lisa,

Now he'll be remembered as a fool. I'd like to see this so-called "study" which contradicts a huge body of research (not to mention my considerable personal experience).

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supplementary nutrition may promote cancer growth?

Posted by HARRY,


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Rap on antioxidants

Posted by Seth Kaplan,

It may be that, if enough people take antioxidants throughout their lifetimes, some of them will never develop cancer. Therefore, antioxidant support of cancer would never be an issue for them.

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