How to kill cancer cells

I am taking the Memorial Day holiday off. I will return tomorrow. In the meantime, here’s a general principle that needs to be remembered in cancer research:

I would also add to that list: So does bleach. So does acid. So does alkali. So does pouring the media out of the dish and letting the cells dry out. So does adding water to dilute the media. So do a variety of lethal poisons. So does heat. So does cold. The list goes on. Add to the list as you see fit!

The point, of course, is that it’s very easy to kill cells in a cancer dish. What is difficult is selectively killing cancer cells in the human body while not harming normal cells.

See you all on Tuesday!


  1. #1 The Smith of Lie
    May 27, 2013

    Now, if it selectively kills cells in petri dish, you can be sure it’s at least a great breakthrough for everyone suffering from petri dish cancer.

    Since the strip wouldn’t be complete without its alt text.

  2. #2 lilady
    May 27, 2013

    No need for a gun, Orac. Hypotonic solution causes cell lysis.

    (Biology 101)

  3. #3 palindrom
    May 27, 2013

    Thanks for the cartoon!

    Physical scientists in particular have a warm spot in their hearts for xkcd,.

  4. #4 Nick Theodorakis
    May 27, 2013

    Yes, lilady, our old friend dihydrogen monoxide can indeed kill cancer cells!

  5. #5 Denice Walter
    May 27, 2013

    A great deal of the “peer-reviewed” studies I hear quoted by alt media involve *in vitro* studies without mention of the most salient fact : *in vitro* not the same as *in vivo* altho’ they share many of the same letters.

    as an aside- hilariously, I might add:

    recently PRN’s woo-meister-at-large whilst reading a study aloud -that he mis-understood grievously-
    quoted amounts of a particular nutrient as ” u grams”… ( i.e he pronounced the letter ‘U’) for what was probably ‘mu’ ( i.e. micrograms/ mcg- I have no mus on this keyboard).

    He didn’t know that it designated mcg!

    Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. He’s a scientist, professor, researcher, educator and translates “dry scientific material” into “lay language” for his audience.

    Pro Tip:
    Don’t get information from a nutritionist/ health expert who doesn’t know mille- from micro-.

  6. #6 palindrom
    May 27, 2013

    Well, Denice, I guess no “mu”s is good “mu”s.

  7. #7 Denice Walter
    May 27, 2013

    @ plaindrom:

    We have an Irish cousin commonly referred to as “Mu”.

  8. #8 Krebiozen
    May 27, 2013

    Not only do we have lots of things that kill cancer cells in vitro, we are very good at curing cancer in mice. In humans, sadly, not so much.

    Denice – if you have an Alt key, holding it down, typing “230” and releasing the Alt will usually produce a µ.

  9. #9 prn
    May 27, 2013

    Other ways to measure effect include imaging, serial blood markers, biopsy and full tissue. Some of the common drugs do have important claims that have not been followed up with alacrity but do have potentially distinctive responses.

    No doubt Drs Weisenthal and Nagourney would find Orac’s views on viable tissue testing dated, if not an uninformed anachronism. Last I saw, Orac’s view was based on evaluations of other technology contemporary with the Yugo auto. Lots different than a 2012 BMW.

  10. #10 Eric Lund
    May 27, 2013

    I have no mus on this keyboard

    There is an HTML escape sequence for that: typing μ gives you μ. Similarly for other Greek letters. If you need an upper case Greek letter, capitalize the first letter in the escape sequence (e.g., Δ gives you Δ instead of δ).

    Some of those Greek letters can be a bit obscure (many of my undergraduate classmates had never seen a lowercase zeta until they took statistical mechanics), but mu is not one of them. How does one get to be a scientist without encountering it? Aside from being an SI prefix, it comes up in a bunch of different physics contexts, and I think the chemists sometimes use it as well (though I may be misremembering that part).

  11. #11 Denice Walter
    May 27, 2013

    Thanks for the info, guys.

    I did my stat work prior to required computer. ( 1980s) and hired people to type important stuff.

    Let’s see:
    I’ll try both-

    &mu &Delta

  12. #12 Denice Walter
    May 27, 2013

    No dice, fellows.

  13. #13 Alain
    May 27, 2013

    @ Denice, Want to hire me (in 5 years as an industrial engineer)?


  14. #14 Alain
    May 27, 2013

    μ δ

  15. #15 Alain
    May 27, 2013

    Blame lack of sleep (spent the night doing my first spaghetti sauce since my PTSD) but I’m on a roll…Might do a certificate in german and go do engineering for bmw or mercedes-benz 🙂


  16. #16 Dan Nelson
    May 27, 2013

    Clearly cannabis has benefits. With the US now patenting deliver systems for cannabinoids in treatment of prostate, breast, and colon cancer, that’s pretty hard to deny (
    Specially with living, breathing tests…which I’ll refrain from posting the countless links to.

  17. #17 The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge
    May 27, 2013

    DW: Did you by any chance forget the semicolon? Surrounding anything by ampersand-semicolon is how you get it to display without being interpreted as an html tag, like if you want to show people how to blockquote: Ampersand-lt (for “less than”)-semicolon appears as: <. (The closing brackets don’t seem to matter.)

    Let me try &&230;;

  18. #18 The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge
    May 27, 2013

    And then I didn’t actually do it! &230;

  19. #19 The Very Reverend Battleaxe of Knowledge
    May 27, 2013

    Nope. Oh well, back to switching to “Polytonic Greek” and using Keyboard Viewer. μ

  20. #20 Narad
    May 27, 2013

    many of my undergraduate classmates had never seen a lowercase zeta until they took statistical mechanics

    I still get hassled over my use of “canonical.”

  21. #21 palindrom
    May 27, 2013

    Narad @19 — I always thought the Grand Canonical Ensemble was Napoleon’s prized artillery battery, but then my French isn’t very good.

  22. #22 Julian Frost
    May 27, 2013

    Δ Μ Α Β

  23. #23 Colin Day
    May 28, 2013

    Try doing this for &#0x230;

  24. #24 ConspicuousCarl
    May 28, 2013

    May 27, 2013
    Physical scientists in particular have a
    warm spot in their hearts for xkcd,.”

    Even this one?

  25. #25 elburto
    May 28, 2013

    @Denice – Wow. Not quite the scientific saviour he claims to be.

    @prn – Here on Planet Earth we have a concept called “humour”. Look it up in the spirit of “When on Earth…” and all that.

    If that’s too much for you then maybe it’s time to return to Planet Stavianus, with its stony faces, and famous golden ascorbic acid falls.

  26. #26 Calli Arcale
    May 28, 2013

    I read that XKCD just now (getting caught up on ‘toons after the Memorial Day weekend) and immediately came over here. 😀

  27. #27 Sigivald
    May 28, 2013

    Denice said: Don’t get information from a nutritionist/ health expert who doesn’t know mille- from micro-.

    Aww, come on. It’s only three orders of magnitude…

  28. #28 Interrobang
    May 28, 2013

    elburto: Humour transcends even Planet Earth, as a certain Commander Hadfield so aptly demonstrated recently…

    Also, he just told people via Twitter not to feel bad about their diets going badly, as he gained 170 pounds the other day. Ba-dum-tish!

  29. #29 elburto
    May 29, 2013

    *snort* Fabulous!

    I demand localised antigravity and a robotic exoskellington. That way, I could weigh the same as a labradog while also being a kick-arse mobile wooligan-reformer

  30. #30 JustaTech
    May 30, 2013

    I need this as a T-shirt. Snarky science t-shirts are for lab days.

  31. #31 Ryan Turner
    West Virginia
    June 5, 2013

    Very amusing indeed! I feel like this illustration is very spot on to what people think should happen in cancer research. In general, the mass population feels that there is a definite “cure” for cancer. However, this is not the case. As a scientific community we know that cancer is caused from spontaneous mutations that build-up over time. Our bodies work like well oiled machines. Our cells replicate at an extremely fast rate day in and day out. Cells have checkpoints that allow them to search for any mutations that may have occurred in the DNA during the replication process. When the damaged and mutated cell that was created is found, the cell either goes to apoptosis or is killed by our immune system. But trouble arises when these damaged cells miss these vital checkpoints and begin to grow rapidly out of control. Chemotherapy drugs, while very effective, are only useful if the cancer covers a large area or has metastasized. But chemotherapy can also kill the healthy cells as well. Radiation is also effective, but like chemotherapy, it to causes damage to the normal, healthy cells around the cancerous ones. I realize that our body has over 60 trillion cells and finding out which ones are mutated and cancerous is close to impossible, it would be interesting if there was some type of test developed to detect the location where cells are being heavily mutated and replicated. If something like this was discovered we would be able to prevent the cancer from ever leaving that specific area. If something like this could be discovered we could help millions of families physically, emotionally, and even financially.

  32. #32 Something else
    June 12, 2013

    Ryan, healthy cells are often heavily mutated and replicated.

    How would you plan to isolate the skin?

  33. #33 DLC
    Somewhere where they wear hats.
    June 18, 2013

    Dan Nelson @16 : there are also patents for Death Rays and Perpetual motion machines. You can patent almost anything if you can provide evidence that it’s new art. go figure.

    Orac — did you see the one in the media (huff-post, where else?) about capsicum and how it kills cancer cells in vitro?
    I was reminded of this post when I saw the item.

  34. #34 blahblahbla
    June 22, 2013

    can use gamma ray, but will kill the normal cells

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