Platinum handwarmers and platinum chemotherapy

Jacob Schor ND, FABNO

August 9, 2015


That New Yorker magazine article about Hollister that mentioned Abercrombie & Fitch’s mythological backstory about the founding of their subsidiary clothing line Holister has left a deep impression on me, it would seem. I find the phrase, “What does truth have to do with it?” repeating through my mind at random intervals to the tune of Tina Turner’s ‘what does love have to do with it?’


While my deep personal conviction is that truth matters a great deal, I am going to offer up the following ‘story’ as it may be helpful in patient care. I think for some people it will provide an image of chemotherapy that may be helpful. A kind of psychoimmunology sort of thing.  I’m not sure what I will think though if I find it repeated online without a disclaimer that it is not necessarily true.



Of hand warmers and chemotherapy



Credit for the invention of modern handwarmers is given to a Japanese man named Niichi Matoba who in either 1915 or 1923 (depending on which website you believe) invented the platinum catalyst handwarmer.


These simple gadgets run on naptha fuel or what we commonly think of as Zippo Lighter fuel,


My first hand warmer, which I used as a boy scout in the early 1960s, was made by Zippo the company that makes those cigarette lighters.  A small amount of liquid fuel soaked into the absorbent cotton within the metal body of the warmer provides sustained heat output for the better part of a day in the coldest weather.  Curiously the heat output is moderate, in the range of a hot tub; there is no flame.  Something rather clever is going on.


Prying open these gadgets reveals a ‘burner head’ where the fuel oxidation reaction occurs.  This burner head is plated with platinum.  Platinum acts a catalyst, allowing the oxidation reaction to proceed at a far lower temperature than is normally required to oxidize this fuel.  Think low temperature slow burn instead of fire.  Platinum helps things burn up without the highly destructive heat we associate with fire.


One of the major families of chemotherapy drugs used to treat cancer contain platinum.  Think of cisplatin, carboplatin, and oxaliplatin. They are used to trat a wide range of cancers.   Barnett Rosenberg is given credit for reporting that cisplatin could destroy solid tumors in the 1960s, about the same time as a younger version of myself was using his Zippo handwarmer on winter ski trips.


These are potent chemotherapy drugs.  Understanding how handwarmers work will help us understand why these drugs are so effective at helping kill cancer cells.


Cancer cells are doing their best to commit suicide, to burn themselves up via chemicals known as reactive oxygen species, these are strong oxidants that are generated in response to the cell’s realization that it is no longer healthy.  Cancer cells are trying to self-destruct through a process called ‘apoptosis.’ 

Despite these good intentions, natural protective mechanisms within the cell keep trying to protect it from this self-immolation, (think of the fire suppression mechanisms, like the ceiling sprinklers I’m looking up at in the hotel lobby at the moment).


Adding a little platinum into this competing cancer cell interior acts as a catalyst, just as it does in my old Zippo hand warmer.  It allows the chemical reaction to proceed at a lower temperature.  The cancer cell that is doing it’s best to burn itself up, is suddenly able to do so at a lower temperature.


This is the image we want our patients to have in mind when receiving these drugs.  The platinum from these drugs sneaks into those cancer cells and allows them to burn away. 




NIICHI Matoba invented the pocket warmers



The New Yorker article was about the town of Hollister, California but as a way of introduction talked about Hollister, the clothing company, a subsidiary of Abercrombie & Fitch, the even bigger clothing company.

“For years, employees of Hollister stores, during orientation, were given the story, and it goes something like this: John M. Hollister was born at the end of the nineteenth century and spent his summers in Maine as a youth. He was an adventurous boy who loved to swim in the clear and cold waters there. He graduated from Yale in 1915 and, eschewing the cushy Manhattan life suggested for him, set sail for the Dutch East Indies, where he purchased a rubber plantation in 1917. He fell in love with a woman named Meta and bought a fifty-foot schooner. He and Meta sailed around the South Pacific, treasuring “the works of the artisans that lived there,” and eventually settled in Los Angeles, in 1919. They had a child, John, Jr., and opened a shop in Laguna Beach that sold goods from the South Pacific—furniture, jewelry, linens, and artifacts. When John, Jr., came of age and took over the business, he included surf clothing and gear. (He was an exceptional surfer himself.) Hi
s surf
shop, which bore his name, grew in popularity until it became a globally recognized brand. The Hollister story is one of “passion, youth and love of the sea,” evoking “the harmony of romance, beauty, adventure.”
None of this is true. Most of Abercrombie & Fitch’s brands—including the now defunct Gilly Hicks and Ruehl No. 925—have had fictional backstories, conceived by Mike Jeffries, the company’s former C.E.O.”

New Yorker article:

NOTE:  This is fictional.  That is this is not the mechanism of action of platinum chemotherapy drugs.  Instead these drugs are thought to act by binding to DNA and producing crosslinks that causes changes in the DNA conformation that prevents cells replication.  The information about handwarmers is in fact true.