There's an article floating around the internet about aspartame, a relatively benign substance unless you're one of the very few people with the rare genetic disease of phenylketonuria. You've probably run into it, a rant on how aspartame is the root of MS, fibromyalgia, an epidemic of seizures, extreme symptoms of lupus, inexplicable blindness, loss of ambulatory function, etc., etc. One almost expects claims that aspartame is responsible for athlete's foot and baldness! If you read with any critical evaluation of these various claims, it quickly becomes apparent that pseudo-science abounds. All the usual pseudo-science tricks are present: fake citation of supposed authoritative sources, anecdotal claims, lack of any proof that could withstand actual scientific scrutiny, claims of evidence suppression by business and/or government, etc. Frankly, crap like this really irritates me because with a little thought, 1) most anyone should be able to figure out the difference between factual reports and bull puckey, and 2) pseudo-science helps to further undermine public trust in our representative democracy and in the credibility of institutional science.

I'm getting ahead of myself here, so without further delay or tangents, today's target can be found at http://rhondagessner.wordpress.com/2013/09/02/a-killer-in-your-fridge-sweet-poison-a-must-read/ (accessed 8 Sept 13). Now I'm going to also point you to the debunking of this aspartame hoax by sending you to its entry at the granddaddy of all debunking websites, snopes.com, at http://www.snopes.com/medical/toxins/aspartame.asp (accessed 8 Sept 13). To be frank, I'm not sure the snopes debunking page is all that great in this case because the Food and Drug Administration letter quoted on Snopes is probably too nuanced for most people to follow. Trust me on this: having been thru two different grad schools (Caltech and UCDavis, both in the top 25 schools in my field), what no one teaches in hard science is how to write for people who are not fellow hard scientists. The best you get is maybe a class on how to write and publish a scientific paper. Learning on how to communicate to the hoi polloi is not in the curriculum. The FDA letter quoted on Snopes is a good example of talking above the heads of most of the readership. But that's not really my topic today so let's leave this tangent for the time being.

One of things I've noticed about the aspartame-is-toxic article over the years is that the end of it often varies if the person posting it has something to sell you. The Rhonda Gessner blog post of this article is on a blog site whose object is to sell you water purification stuff. If you look at the aspartame-is-toxic article quoted on the Snopes website, it wanted to sell you some junk medicine books. This kind of gimmick is the internet equivalent of an infomercial on cable tv.

The end of the aspartame-is-toxic article on the Rhonda Gessner blog is really quite interesting, enough so that I will quote one part of it here:

I came across an article about Dr. Otto Warburg that said…he won the Nobel Prize in 1931 for proving that no disease including cancer, can survive in an alkaline body. From there…a friend told me about a Japanese medical device that makes alkaline water. She went on to tell me that since our body is 70% water, drinking alkaline ionized water is the easiest way to raise your pH. It makes perfect sense…the health “puzzle” is made up of many pieces including water, diet, exercise, sleep, etc. But since 3/4 of that puzzle is made up of one big piece…WATER, drinking enough of the “right” kind of water will have a HUGE impact on your health. If you’d like to learn more, click on the link and request your FREE eBook on Healthy Water: <<link to the product that this blog is pushing>>

The blog post ends immediately after this link with this sentence:

(just sharing this info from another blog…i’m not the author)

Did you catch that? By stating that everything above this disclaimer statement is from another blog, which is never cited by the way, this blog's author makes it look that someone else's blog was plugging the water purification product that this blog is marketing. Nice... Wow. Is that sarcasm I'm smelling?

It's certainly an interesting segue from aspartame in diet soda to drinking the right kind of water in order to prevent or cure cancer. You would think that such an amazing find by Herr Doktor Otto Wartburg would have circled the globe already with cancer cures and the cancer eradication becoming well-established everywhere. In fact, if such a thing were true, that no disease can exist in an alkaline body, then disease as we know it should have passed out of existence well-before the end of the 20th century. But here we are in the 21st century, and disease is alive and well, so to say.

So who was Otto Warburg and what did he really discover in his research about cancer? Right off the bat, Dr. Warburg was a research biochemist who worked in Italy and Germany. One interesting fact about the man is that he was friends with both Einstein and Max Planck. He won the 1931 Nobel Prize in Medicine for elucidating the mechanism and responsible enzymes for cellular respiration. As as outgrowth of his research on cellular respiration, he showed that cancerous cells required much less oxygen than normal cells because they replace aerobic cellular respiration with anaerobic glycolysis as a source of energy. The "Warburg effect" was Warburg's theory that even in aerobic conditions, cancer cells will persist in using glycolysis for energy rather than aerobic respiration. Warburg believed that the malignant transformation of normal to cancerous cells, i.e. from aerobic respiration to glycolysis for energy production, was the fundamental cause of cancer. Subsequent research of cancerous cell growth strongly suggests that the Warburg effect is itself the result of gene suppression and mutation; thus the anaerobic conditions associated with malignant tumors are not the cause of run-away glycolysis, but rather the result of gene misfunction.

So where do people get these strange ideas about the pH of biochemical processes and the acidity or alkalinity of human bodies? It doesn't make much sense to me. I have a inkling that it comes from a misunderstanding about the relationship of anaerobic processes in the body somehow being associated with acidity. Maybe it goes like this: the products of anaerobic glycolysis go through a non-Krebs cycle fermentation with an end product of lactic acid, thus increasing acidity. Now it looks like Warburg was thinking the anaerobic conditions were the precursor to the transformation from normal to cancerous cells, so even according to his theory, any increase in acidity from the creation of lactic acid was the effect of the cancerous cell glycolysis, not the cause. So this isn't really a good explanation for how someone might mistake Warburg's precursor anaerobic conditions for some kind of increase in body acidity.

The concept of an acidic vs. alkaline body is just plain weird. To say that your body is 70% water, and that drinking alkaline water will shift the pH of your body's water to more alkaline values is nonsense. Why? Because the so-called water in your body isn't really water. The water molecules in your body exist mostly as the solvent part of the solutions that form the so-called bodily fluids like blood, cerebral fluid, mucus, bile, vitreous humor and many others. Each of these fluids has its own optimum pH suited for the function that that fluid carries out in the body. Gastric acid, which is the stuff in your stomach, varies in pH between 1 and 4, depending on when you ate last. (For whatever it's worth, coke has a pH of approximately 2.5, well within the range of stomach acid.) The pH of blood is ~7.4 ± 0.05. Your body works continuously to keep your blood inside that range. If the pH of your blood shifts out of that range, it can make you quite sick but it doesn't cause cancer. Kidney or heart failure, maybe; but cancer, no. There's more blood in you than any other fluid but drinking a lot of acidic or alkaline water will not lead to shifts in the pH of your blood because bodies just don't work that way. Think of it this way: all the water you drink, regardless of its alkalinity or acidity, will always be instantly acidified upon ingestion. There's no way to avoid that acidification because it's the stomach job to attack everything you ingest with low pH gastic acid. So much for buying fancy gizmos to make your drinking water alkaline, if it isn't already that way already. A lot of water in North America is on the alkaline side of pH. If you live west of the Appalachian Mountains, chances are that your local drinking water is hard water - and hard water by definition is alkaline. Why buy a gizmo to deliver you alkaline water when all you really need to do is move to Arizona.

Trivia: There are actually two things called the Warburg effect, the one discussed here and one relating to photosynthesis, both "authored" by Otto Warburg. There is also a thing called the Reverse Warburg effect, which involves aerobic glycolysis rather than anaerobic glycolysis and wasn't the brain child of Warburg (Pavlides et al, 2009, pubmed 19923890).

Tangential Trivia: Krebs is the German word for cancer. Interestingly enough, Hans Adolf Krebs, explicator of the Krebs cycles, also known as the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle or citric acid cycle, once worked for Otto Warburg as his assistant. The Krebs cycle is one of the processes associated with aerobic respiration of normal cells. The process of cancerous non-Krebs cycle fermentation after glycolysis is therefore a bit tweaked as far as nomenclature is concerned when you consider that Krebs means cancer in Kreb's first language. Go figure.

References

Encyclopedia Britannica, "Otto Warburg," http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/635734/Otto-Warburg (accessed 8 Sept 2013, subscription required).

Kim, J. W., and Dang, C. V. (2006), Cancer's molecular sweet tooth and the Warburg effect, Cancer Research 66 (18): 8927–8930. (pubmed16982728)

López-Lázaro, M. (2008), The warburg effect: why and how do cancer cells activate glycolysis in the presence of oxygen? Anticancer Agents Med Chem 8(3):305-12. (pubmed18393789)

Menedez, J. A., and 9 others, (2013), The Warburg effect version 2.0: metabolic reprogramming of cancer stem cells, Cell Cycle 12(8):1166-79. (pubmed 23549172)

Warburg, O. (1956), On the origin of cancer cells, Science 123 (3191): 309–314. (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/123/3191/309.full.pdf, accessed 8 Sept 2013, subscription required)