We were concerned to hear Patrick Holford featuring in a truly disappointing interview on Kim Hill’s Saturday morning radio show: he was given over 50 minutes, almost unchallenged, to assert a whole manner of dubious claims. Patrick Holford – introduced as a “British nutritionist” – was allowed to share his wisdom on such things as addiction, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s Disease and cancer. I can’t deal with this all here – you really need to listen to the show in its entirety to fully appreciate how often it hits you round the head with the stupid stick – but I will note a few low/highlights. I should also say that we did e-mail the show before broadcast to raise some concerns; however, they chose to give Holford the opportunity to share his wisdom with their listeners, almost unchallenged.
Holford starts with a discussion of his beliefs on addiction. Suffice to say that this draws on much of the same material that was published in the Economist, and later led this august publication to issue a clarification. Holford’s interpretation of the research remains as poor as expected. I wonder if Radio New Zealand will also live up to its responsibility to correct this misinformation.
Holford asserts that he was misquoted when he was criticised for overplaying the efficacy of vitamin C for treating HIV/AIDS (about 20mins in). He then goes on to report on studies where vitamin C “inactivated the [HIV] virus very substantially” and “vitamin C was leagues ahead [of AZT] in terms of its effects”. We know that these studies – the “trials on t cells” Holford talks about – were only in vitro studies. I am not sure that Kim Hill’s listeners would have picked that up, though.
Holford’s stance on his claim that “AZT, the first prescribable anti-HIV drug, is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C” appears to be very much je ne regrette rien. Oddly, Holford also demands “large-scale proper human trials” on this issue (he is, charmingly, clear that someone else should pay for this). I am not sure if Holford is aware that there have been (smaller) human trials on vitamin C: for example, Allard et al (which used it alongside vitamin D) which failed to show statistically significant benefits. There may still be reason for further research – it is possible that there is some benefit, and Allard et al did note a non-significant trend – but such trials make it hard to believe that vitamin C is any kind of miracle cure for AIDS.
Shortly after this discussion (about 23mins in) Holford discusses the use of vitamin C in treating terminal cancer patients: arguing that, when Pauling treated terminal patients with vitamin C, 20% did not die. Pauling’s research on this was seriously flawed and has been heavily criticised but, as Holford notes, there has been more recent research (I assume he means Levine et al) which does suggest that vitamin C may have some utility in treating cancer*. However, Holford very much overplays the benefits of vitamin C – readers may note a theme here – and focuses excessively on Pauling’s old and flawed research. One should also note (Holford and Hill do not mention this in the interview) that vitamin C can act as a pro-oxidant and supplements may interfere with therapeutic interventions*.
Orac offers an excellent summary of Pauling and Levine’s research:
vitamin C probably has some antitumor activity for some tumors, but as I contemplate the evidence for this effect the word “underwhelming” comes to mind…the attraction to vitamin C still lives on despite unimpressive evidence. Naturally, the authors of the phase I trial suggest using vitamin C in combination with chemotherapy, which is a perfectly reasonable approach for drugs that don’t show any objective evidence of activity as a single agent. However, this will not be easy, given that the sheer mass and volume of ascorbate that must be administered and the very high concentrations that are required even in the best case scenario could easily interfere with other chemotherapeutic agents.
Vitamin C may be useful as part of a chemotherapy programme*, but unfortunately the evidence does not suggest that it will work on its own to cure cancer.
Holford also argues that nutrition allows the prevention and/or amelioration of Alzheimer’s. Plugging his book on Alzheimer’s, Holford notes that he “worked with a very good group at Oxford University”. He then talks about the role of Homocysteine, and about high doses of vitamin B12 preventing Alzheimer’s. Holford then talks about the
fundamental discovery of the great Linus Pauling: that…naturally-occurring substances (nutrients) in very large amounts do have the ability to reverse disease processes.
Please bear in mind that this is a 53 minute interview. I have referred to under 10 minutes of it here, and the rest of the audio really is that bad (although, at least, Kim cuts Holford off when he starts going into rather too much detail about loose bowels). You really do need to listen to the whole thing: this is truly a stunning artefact of the ‘alternative’ nutrition industry.
* This issue is complex. Don’t take medical advice from the Internet – speak to your oncologist if you are considering this.