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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Antioxidants...cause Cancer?

Posted by TR,

With all due respect to this man and his achievements. We must put things into perspective. Bear in mind it was not too long ago that one noble Laurette got his prize by promoting a novel mental health treatment for depression via frontal lobotomies. I think such statements by this noble Laurette belong in the same category. They have more to do with medical dogma than science. Antioxidants have been shown over and over again to in the literature to prevent cancer and even treat it. Even now some of the most prestigious medical institutions in the US are performing studies on IV ascorbic acid (a water soluble antioxidant) on its ability to wipe out non-hodgkin's lymphoma. Bear in mind that oxidative stress not only promotes pathology associated with aging, but without them the human body dies.

But I suppose such a statement is par for the course by incredulous scientists, who approve of therapies which utterly destroy the human frame to save them from a disease caused by a diet deficient in antioxidants. Though science no longer endorses frontal lobotomies, it is obvious that sometimes their thinking reflects that might undergone them.

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antioxidants don't work?

Posted by Erik-Alexander Richter,

Maybe it is a blessing that antioxidants block late stage cancer treatments since it has been proven that chemotherapy actually causes cancer. This type of treatment is useless, besides the billions of profits for the producers. It kills people anyway, so better use supplements to protect our body against the detrimental effects of chemotherapy. Better; no chemotheraphy at all…

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Looking forward to more evidence, but problem known

Posted by bill andriette,

Those pursuing nutritional-minded approaches to cancer prevention and treatment have not been ignorant of Watson's point. See the balanced discussion here, for instance: "Should Antioxidants Be Taken at the Same Time as Chemotherapy?" from the Life Extension Foundation ( If a chemotherapy works against cancer cells by being pro-oxidant, then maybe high levels of dietary antioxidants are an issue. But other chemotherapies work by other means; taxols, for instance, interfere with cell division and so affect faster-growing cells disproportionately. A larger issue is biochemical context: in some circumstances, for instance, vitamin c is pro-oxidant. But pro-oxidants aren't necessarily bad either. A recent study of showing that grape-seed proanthocyanidins support wound healing found that, in the wound, grapeseed components do their work by being pro-oxidant ( Without pro-oxidant stress (e.g., through exercise) some of the body's key defenses don't kick in – a process known as hormesis (nice discussion here –

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