Life Extension Magazine October 2005
Coenzyme Q10 New Applications for Cancer Therapy
By Christie Yerby, ND
Promising new research suggests that coenzyme Q10 may be an important adjuvant therapy for cancer patients. Scientists have discovered that CoQ10 can program cancer cells to self-destruct before multiplying at their customary, lethal rates. For millions of cancer patients, the implications of this discovery are nothing short of profound.
This finding was one of several from recent studies conducted by researchers at the University of Miami (FL), using CoQ10 as their test agent.1 In a telephone interview in July 2005, principal investigator Dr. S.L. Hsia told Life Extension, “This is the first time in history we have been able to selectively teach a cancer cell to kill itself with CoQ10, via a mitochondrial mechanism, without harming the healthy cells.”
According to team researcher Niven R. Narain, cancer cells lose their apoptotic potential, or ability to respond to programmed cell death. “What CoQ10 does is to restore apoptosis to cancer cells,” Narain told Life Extension. “The data suggest that CoQ10 significantly reduces expression of the bcl-2 gene family, which is responsible for conferring resistance to cell death. In essence, CoQ10 modulates bcl-2 in a manner that allows the cancer cell to kill itself without adversely affecting normal cells. This is why we say it is ‘selective,’ because the bcl-2 family is not affected in normal cells.”
CoQ10 Research: Past and Present
CoQ10, a fat-soluble, vitamin-like nutrient that is also called “ubiquinone” because it is found in every human cell, boosts energy, is a powerful antioxidant, and can bolster immune health. Growing research indicates that CoQ10 is valuable for fighting fatigue, preventing and managing heart disease and some cancers, and possibly reversing some of the toxic effects of chemotherapy.2 As a coenzyme, it supports many important biochemical reactions in the body.
Interest in CoQ10’s therapeutic uses can be traced as far back as 1957, when it was first identified by Frederick Crane, PhD. In the 1960s, Peter D. Mitchell, PhD, discovered that CoQ10 produces energy at the cellular level, work that would eventually earn him a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1978. In the early 1980s, Karl Folkers, PhD, director of the Institute for Biochemical Research at the University of Texas, and Peter H. Langsjoen, MD, FACC, began studying CoQ10. In 1983, seven years before Folkers received the National Medal of Science in recognition of his work, the Life Extension Foundation announced CoQ10’s potential benefits for health disorders ranging from neurological aging to heart disease, and drew attention to numerous clinical studies demonstrating its safety.2
The recent findings about CoQ10 may mean that in the near future, a diagnosis of cancer may carry with it more hope for being able to continue living a long and healthy life. But does this mean we are closer to finding a cure for cancer?
“We encourage cancer patients to continue the traditional treatment their doctors recommend,” says Dr. Hsia. He feels, however, that adjuvant, or integrative, therapy with CoQ10 may be advisable. “It might be advantageous to give cancer patients CoQ10,” he says, “given that it will help healthy cells produce more ATP [adenosine triphosphate], the energy molecule.”
Dr. Hsia notes that CoQ10 is concentrated in the mitochondria, the energy-generating “power plants” contained in each human cell. CoQ10 is an important cofactor, or contributing ingredient, in the production of ATP, the molecule that serves as the cell’s major energy source and is central to many life-sustaining biological processes.3 Some health experts believe that diminished ATP levels may lead to the development of chronic illnesses, including cancer.
The body’s natural stores of CoQ10 can be depleted in numerous ways, including inadequate biosynthesis due to gene mutation, inhibited production caused by cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, normal aging, strenuous exercise, and cancer.3 Correcting these deficiencies often requires supplementing with greater amounts of CoQ10 than can be obtained through dietary sources.3
Studies show that patients treated with statin drugs have lower plasma levels of CoQ10, since these medications block mevalonic acid, which is a precursor of both cholesterol and CoQ10.4-8 CoQ10 supplementation may prevent plasma depletion without affecting the statins’ cholesterol-lowering effects.9
Normal aging can also affect CoQ10 levels. “By age 20,” says Narain, “CoQ10 diminishes in our bodies. It has been suggested that low levels of CoQ10 may lead to a number of diminished states of health, playing a part in many degenerative illnesses.”
The increased metabolic rates seen in athletes during strenuous competition or endurance exercise may accelerate the body’s utilization of CoQ10. Unless these increased demands are met through supplementation, the body’s CoQ10 levels may remain in a depleted state.10
Decreased CoQ10 bioavailability may cause cellular damage resulting in altered DNA and consequently leading to poor health.8 Studies have noted diminished CoQ10 levels in cancer patients and others with chronic illnesses.11-14 Results from assay studies accumulated over 25 years reveal that viral infection may deplete CoQ10 levels and that AIDS patients show a “striking” beneficial response to CoQ10 supplementation.15
Free Radicals and Antioxidants
Free radicals, which alter cell membranes and DNA, have been implicated in the aging process and the development and progression of many chronic and degenerative illnesses, including cancer.16 Some researchers believe that free radical damage may contribute to the pathogenesis of cancer and that antioxidant supplements may help aging adults counter the effects of environmental toxins.11,17,18
Antioxidants inhibit free radical formation or quench existing radicals, thus halting the progression of free radical damage. Many nutrients act as antioxidants, with CoQ10 being one of the more powerful.19 CoQ10 deficiencies thus may contribute to greater cellular damage from free radicals.
Some conventional cancer therapies and radiation treatments kill cancer cells, in part by spurring free radical formation.16 Although it may seem illogical to supply a source of antioxidants during conventional cancer treatment, the value of using antioxidants to treat cancer remains a topic of great debate, despite the known adverse effects of chemotherapy drugs.18
Recent data, however, suggest that antioxidants can help counter the toxic side effects of chemotherapeutic agents without affecting their anti-cancer actions. Results from a study investigating the combined efficacy of tamoxifen citrate (Nolvadex®) and CoQ10 were reported in May 2005. Tamoxifen is commonly used to prevent and treat breast cancer. While known to be an antioxidant as well as a non-steroidal anti-estrogenic drug, it can produce adverse side effects with extended use. Researchers sought to determine whether CoQ10 could help to minimize tamoxifen’s side effects while maintaining or increasing its antioxidant actions.18
In this study, rats with chemically induced mammary carcinoma exhibited lowered levels of antioxidant activity, suggesting a possible increase in free radicals and the resultant peroxidative damage often implicated in cancer development. Rats that received 28 days of tamoxifen and CoQ10 had significantly increased glutathione-related antioxidant enzymes. The researchers concluded that the combination of CoQ10 and tamoxifen restores antioxidant activity that is diminished by chemotherapeutic agents, and increases antioxidant actions that may prevent cancer cell proliferation and protect cells from free radical damage.18
Another chemotherapy drug, Adriamycin® (doxorubicin), can damage the heart. In 1996, scientists noted that CoQ10 helped prevent Adriamycin®-induced cardiotoxicity. Again in 2005, researchers reported that CoQ10 appears to prevent Adriamycin®-induced damage to the mitochondria of the heart.20
People with cancer affirm their belief in the benefits of nutritional supplements by adding them to their health-restoration programs. A recent study showed that 63% of 453 oncology patients used vitamins and herbs, leading the researchers to call for further studies. “Use of CAM (Complementary and Alternative Medicine) will likely increase,” the study reported.21
According to scientists at the University of Colorado, high-dose antioxidants inhibit the growth of different rodent and human cancer cells both in vivo and in vitro. Because each antioxidant may have a different mechanism of action on tumor cells, cancer cells may respond uniquely to different antioxidants. While antioxidant treatment for a short time (a few hours) may not inhibit cancer cell growth, treatment over a longer period of time (24 hours or more) with the same dose may inhibit tumor growth. Thus, the efficacy of antioxidants may depend on the cellular environment.22
Chemotherapy drugs can have toxic side effects.20,23 By reducing cellular damage, antioxidants may help to minimize these side effects and improve outcomes for patients with cancer. Emerging evidence suggests that CoQ10 may be a valuable adjuvant therapy for individuals undergoing conventional cancer therapy.
As early as 1961, low levels of CoQ10 were noted in patients with myeloma, lymphoma, and cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, pancreas, colon, kidney, head, and neck.16 However, CoQ10’s potential value in preventing breast cancer did not become apparent until more than three decades later, in studies conducted by Knud Lockwood, MD, a cancer specialist in Copenhagen, Denmark.24
Lockwood’s treatment of 32 “high-risk” breast cancer patients with antioxidants and other nutrients, including a daily dose of 90 mg of CoQ10, produced remarkable results. Although four deaths were expected, no deaths occurred. The subjects also reported decreased use of painkillers, an absence of weight loss, and an improved sense of well-being. Of the 32 participants, six showed partial tumor remission and two benefited from an even higher dose of CoQ10. One woman experienced a stabilized tumor when taking 90 mg of CoQ10; after her daily dose was increased to 390 mg, the tumor disappeared, a finding confirmed by mammography.24 Another patient who had a small tumor removed from her right breast refused to undergo a second operation to remove another. Instead, she began taking 390 mg of CoQ10 daily. Three months later, mammography confirmed an absence of tumors or metastasis in her breast.25
In a follow-up study more than one year later, three other subjects in the original study who had combined conventional cancer therapy with CoQ10 supplementation of 390 mg a day also saw their tumors disappear with no evidence of metastasis.26 CoQ10 thus appears to be the dominant nutrient contributing to breast cancer regression and prevention of its recurrence.25
Correcting a CoQ10 deficiency may be essential for good health. According to Stephen Sinatra in his book The CoQ10 Phenomenon, “Without CoQ10, the body cannot survive.”10 Sinatra recommends CoQ10 supplementation, especially for those undergoing breast cancer therapy and others who are at risk of having depleted stores of CoQ10, including aging adults and users of cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.10