Testing for Cancer: The Value of Metabolic Markers

July 7, 2014

The cancer treatment programs delivered by Immersion Health are based on one very important fact: cancer cells are metabolically different from healthy cells. The easiest way to understand this is with regard to energy and how cells generate it. Healthy cells do that predominantly in one way, and cancer cells do that predominantly in another.


Traditional cancer markers used in conventional oncology look for markers, or "flags," on the surface of cells, with some flags showing up much more commonly on cancer cells than on healthy cells. A significant limitation of these tests, though, is that finding a flag doesn't tell you if it is on a living and viable and dividing cell, or if it is on a dormant and quiet or even a dead cell. For this reason, many oncologists don't run these tumor marker tests at all.


A more reliable way of monitoring is with imagine. Unfortunately, imaging often involves radiation exposure. On top of that, a cancerous tumor won't even show up on imaging until there are about 1 billion cells in the tumor, making it large enough to see. For that reason, imaging isn't an ideal way to monitor for recurrence.


I believe a much more useful and scientifically supported kind of testing is metabolic testing. Since we know that cancer cells metabolize (i.e. generate energy) different from healthy cells, then metabolic tests should be able to detect that kind of metabolism.


This is exactly why I run a set of metabolic tests on all patients with cancer, and just as importantly on patients with a history of cancer who are interested in detecting recurrence. These tests include hCG, phosphohexose isomerase (PHI), and thymidine kinase (TK).


hCG is the pregnancy hormone. Why test cancer patients for a pregnancy hormone? Because malignant cells produce it, and in fact hCG stimulates cancer cell growth. The higher the level of hCG in the blood and/or urine, the stronger the stimulation of cell division. This test is not diagnostic for malignancy. Measuring hCG in the body is tricky business, and requires confirmatory tests and close interpretation. Even with these limitations, hCG is one marker that can help quantify how rapidly cells are dividing.


PHI is an enzyme involved in a kind of metabolism called anaerobic metabolism. All of us have cells that engage in anaerobic metabolism at various times ('anaerobic' means 'without oxygen'). The more vigorously we work out, the more our muscles work anaerobically. For this reason, there is a normal amount of PHI to be found in us all.


The key point is that malignant cells use anaerobic metabolism to a much greater extent than normal cells, and metastic cancer cells use it almost exclusively. Thus, if there are malignant cells present in the body, one can expect to find PHI present in amounts that are higher than in someone without malignant cells. In this way, PHI gives yet another measure of the metabolism used by cancer cells.


Finally, TK is an enzyme that is secreted in tiny amounts by normal cells but in excess by malignant cells in the process of cell division. For that reason, it is well-researched as a reliable marker for how rapidly malignant cells are dividing. Currently it is used mostly for leukemias and lymphomas, but a growing body of literature has found it to be reliable for other types of cancer as well.


None of these tests should be used as a stand-alone test for assessing cancer, and certainly they cannot be used to diagnose cancer. But used in combination and with cautious interpretation, these tests give insights into how much of that cancer-type of metabism is happening. For patients in a treatment program, the tests offer a great way of tracking the success of the treatment process. For those with a history of cancer who are concerned about recurrence, the tests offer something more than simply "wait and see."


If you'd like to learn more about these tests and how they might benefit you, call the clinic at 503-719-4806 to set up a visit or a free 30-minute consultation with Dr. Nigh. Free consults are great for getting general questions answered. With a scheduled visit the appropriate testing can be ordered and a complete assessment gets started right away.

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