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Shifting Paradigms: Cancer as a Metabolic Disease, Not Genetic

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Last Updated on December 23, 2023 by Max


For decades, cancer has been viewed predominantly through a genetic lens, focusing on a sequence of unfortunate gene mutations that seem to draw an inescapable path toward this devastating disease. For patients, this genetic model of cancer can foster feelings of hopelessness, as if they’ve been dealt an inevitable hand of cards with a prognosis that is largely out of their control. However, in recent years, a paradigm shift has begun to reshape the contours of cancer research and offer a glimmer of hope. Emerging evidence is painting cancer in a new light, suggesting it is more of a metabolic disease than a genetic one. This shift in understanding opens up a world of possibilities for prevention, management, and treatment, empowering patients with non-toxic tools that can be harnessed to prevent or even overcome cancer.

Join us on this enlightening journey as we unpack this cutting-edge view of cancer, exploring the scientific foundations of the metabolic theory, its implications for treatment, and what it means for the future of cancer research and patient care.

 Background of Cancer as a Genetic Disease

From textbooks to TV dramas, the genetic theory of cancer is so ingrained in our consciousness that it seems almost sinful to question it. This theory rests on the idea that cancer is primarily the result of DNA mutations that occur randomly over time or in response to certain environmental factors, such as exposure to radiation or harmful chemicals.

As cells divide and replicate their DNA, errors sometimes creep in. When these errors – or mutations – occur in genes that control cell growth and division, it can lead to uncontrolled cell proliferation, a hallmark of cancer. Such genes include BRCA1 and BRCA2, famously linked to breast and ovarian cancer, or TP53, associated with various cancer types (Levine, A.J., 2020).

Examples of Genetic Mutations Traditionally Associated with Cancer

1. BRCA1 and BRCA2 Genes: Perhaps the most well-known genes linked to cancer are BRCA1 (BReast CAncer gene one) and BRCA2 (BReast CAncer gene two). These genes produce proteins that help repair damaged DNA, keeping the genetic material of cells safe and sound. When either of these genes is mutated, DNA damage can escalate unchecked, leading to a significantly increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. These mutations can be inherited from either parent, putting those with a family history of these cancers in a high-risk category (King, M-C., Marks, J.H., Mandell, J.B., 2003).

2. TP53 Gene: The TP53 gene, responsible for producing the p53 protein, has been described as the “guardian of the genome” due to its crucial role in preventing cancer. The p53 protein does this by keeping cell division in check, and when it senses damaged DNA, it can halt cell division until the damage is repaired. If the DNA damage is too severe, p53 can trigger apoptosis, or programmed cell death, to prevent the flawed cell from replicating. However, when mutations occur in the TP53 gene, this crucial regulatory mechanism breaks down, which can result in uncontrolled cell growth and, ultimately, cancer. TP53 mutations have been implicated in various cancers, including breast, ovarian, lung, colon, and pancreatic cancer (Levine, A.J., 2020).

3. KRAS Gene: The KRAS gene regulates cell division. It produces the K-Ras protein, which transmits signals within cells that promote cell growth and division. When the KRAS gene is mutated, it can create a K-Ras protein that is always switched on. This can result in continuous cell growth and division, leading to the formation of a tumor. Mutations in the KRAS gene are widespread in lung, colon, and pancreatic cancer (Cox, A.D., Fesik, S.W., Kimmelman, A.C., Luo, J., Der, CJ, 2014).

Indeed, the genetic theory of cancer has given us critical insights into the disease and has led to the development of targeted therapies, such as Herceptin for HER2-positive breast cancer. But, while these targeted treatments have saved and extended many lives, they have not delivered the universal cure we all yearn for.

Why is that? The genetic theory doesn’t account for why some people with these mutations never develop cancer or why others with no known genetic predispositions do. Moreover, cancer cells are notoriously mutable, often developing resistance to targeted therapies over time (Martincorena, I., Campbell, P.J., 2015).

Does this mean we’re barking up the wrong tree? Not necessarily. It simply means that the genetic theory, while valuable, maybe a partial picture. What if the real answer lies not in the genes but in the energy that fuels our cells? This is where the metabolic theory of cancer steps into the spotlight.

The emergence of the Metabolic Disease Theory

Stepping back from the genetic narrative that has dominated cancer research for decades, some scientists are venturing down a different path, focusing their investigations on the metabolism of cancer cells. The metabolic theory of cancer does not have the same mainstream recognition as its genetic counterpart, but its roots go back nearly a century.

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The seeds of the metabolic theory were sown by the pioneering biochemist Otto Warburg in the early 20th century. Warburg observed that cancer cells consume glucose and produce lactate at a significantly higher rate than normal cells, even in the presence of oxygen – a phenomenon now known as the “Warburg effect” (Warburg, O., 1956). This was a radical deviation from the norm as most healthy cells prefer to generate energy through the much more efficient process of oxidative phosphorylation when oxygen is available.

Fast forward to recent years, and researchers such as Thomas Seyfried and Dominic D’Agostino have expanded on Warburg’s findings, suggesting that this metabolic shift could be a primary cause of cancer rather than a mere side effect of genetic mutations (Seyfried, T.N., Flores, R.E., Poff, A.M., D’Agostino, D.P., 2014).

For instance, glioblastomas, a lethal type of brain cancer, show a high degree of metabolic irregularity, including elevated levels of glucose consumption and lactate production, making them a fitting example of the metabolic theory at play (Venneti, S., Thompson, C.B., 2017). Additionally, some forms of leukemia are driven more by metabolic changes than genetic ones (Jones, C.L., Stevens, B.M., Pollyea, D.A., et al., 2018).

This metabolic reevaluation of cancer doesn’t diminish the significance of genetic factors. Still, it suggests that we may need to pay more attention to what’s happening in the cell’s energy factories – the mitochondria. Is it possible that the future of cancer treatment lies not in targeting rogue genes but in resetting cellular metabolism? This is the burning question at the heart of the metabolic theory.

Cancer as a Metabolic Disease

To truly understand the metabolic theory of cancer, we must first venture into the world of cellular metabolism. Every cell in our body requires energy to function, and our mitochondria primarily generate this energy through a process known as oxidative phosphorylation. However, Otto Warburg observed that cancer cells seem to have an unusual metabolic quirk.

Warburg Effect

Warburg noticed that cancer cells, unlike their healthy counterparts, heavily rely on a much less efficient method of energy production known as glycolysis, where glucose is converted into lactate. This reliance on glycolysis occurs even in the presence of oxygen, contrary to normal cells that switch to oxidative phosphorylation under oxygen-rich conditions. This phenomenon is known as the “Warburg effect” (Warburg, O., 1956). But why would cancer cells opt for a less efficient energy production method? One hypothesis is that the rapid, albeit inefficient, energy production from glycolysis may support the fast growth and proliferation characteristic of cancer cells.

Reverse Warburg Effect

Recent research has introduced the “reverse Warburg effect” concept by adding another layer to the metabolic theory. In this scenario, cancer cells are thought to induce glycolysis in neighboring healthy cells, effectively “hijacking” their resources. The healthy cells produce lactate and other substances which the cancer cells use to fuel their growth and proliferation (Pavlides, S., Whitaker-Menezes, D., Castello-Cros, R., et al., 2009).

How Metabolic Changes Lead to Cancer Development

If we accept the metabolic theory of cancer, we see the disease as a result of mitochondrial dysfunction. The theory suggests that damage to the mitochondria can trigger a shift to glycolysis, leading to the cellular proliferation we identify as cancer. This reframing means we’re not dealing with a disease of genetic origin that causes metabolic problems but rather a metabolic disease that causes genetic mutations (Seyfried, T.N., Flores, R.E., Poff, A.M., D’Agostino, D.P., 2014).

In recent years, a growing body of research has begun to support this metabolic perspective. For example, a study published in 2018 demonstrated that leukemia cells rely on a metabolic pathway known as the one-carbon pathway, which is less dependent on the genetic mutations traditionally associated with the disease (Jones, C.L., Stevens, B.M., Pollyea, D.A., et al., 2018).

Another study in 2017 found that glioblastomas exhibit high levels of glucose consumption and lactate production, further indicating that metabolic dysfunction could be a leading factor in the development and progression of this deadly brain cancer (Venneti, S., Thompson, C.B., 2017).

Evolutionary Prospects of Oxidative Phosphorylation versus Glycolysis

It’s helpful to consider the evolutionary origins of energy production in cells to understand the metabolic dichotomy observed in cancer cells. The two main processes at play here are oxidative phosphorylation and glycolysis.

Oxidative Phosphorylation

Oxidative phosphorylation is a highly efficient process in the mitochondria, often called the cell’s powerhouse. This process uses oxygen to convert nutrients into adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the chemical energy currency of the cell. Oxidative phosphorylation can generate up to 36 molecules of ATP per glucose molecule, making it a highly efficient method of energy production. From an evolutionary perspective, oxidative phosphorylation is a relatively recent development. It arose with the advent of oxygenic photosynthesis, which increased the atmospheric oxygen levels, setting the stage for more complex, multicellular organisms that could take advantage of this more efficient form of energy production.


On the other hand, glycolysis is an ancient metabolic pathway that evolved long before the Earth’s atmosphere was enriched with oxygen. This process, which occurs in the cytoplasm, breaks down glucose into pyruvate, yielding a modest net gain of 2 ATP molecules per glucose molecule. Glycolysis can occur in the absence of oxygen, making it an essential survival mechanism for cells in hypoxic conditions.

Comparison and Relevance to Cancer

Despite the higher energy yield of oxidative phosphorylation, cancer cells often preferentially use glycolysis, a phenomenon known as the “Warburg effect.” This may seem counterintuitive but consider the rapid proliferation of cancer cells. They have a high demand for ATP and biosynthetic precursors – the building blocks for rapid growth. Glycolysis provides an advantage in this respect. The intermediates produced during glycolysis serve as precursors for the biosynthesis of nucleotides, amino acids, and lipids, essential for cell growth and proliferation. Thus, by using glycolysis even in the presence of oxygen, cancer cells can meet both their energy needs and their demands for rapid growth (Vander Heiden, M.G., Cantley, L.C., Thompson, C.B., 2009).

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Unraveling these metabolic pathways and their evolutionary origins gives us insights into the behavior of cancer cells and could provide new avenues for therapeutic interventions.

Implications for Cancer Treatment

Understanding cancer as a metabolic disease rather than a genetic disorder can have far-reaching implications for cancer treatment. This paradigm shift could open up new possibilities for developing more effective therapies and interventions, moving away from the conventional approach primarily targeting genetic mutations.

Potential Benefits of Understanding Cancer as a Metabolic Disease

A metabolic approach to cancer may offer several advantages. For starters, it could provide a more unified understanding of the disease. While genetic mutations vary widely between cancer types and even between patients with the same kind of cancer, metabolic alterations, like the Warburg effect, appear to be more universally present across different cancers (Seyfried, T.N., Flores, R.E., Poff, A.M., D’Agostino, D.P., 2014).

Furthermore, a metabolic approach may allow for more effective treatments with fewer side effects. Many current cancer treatments are toxic because they target rapidly dividing cancerous and healthy cells. However, treatments that target unique metabolic features of cancer cells could potentially spare healthy cells, resulting in fewer adverse effects.

New and Emerging Treatments Targeting Metabolic Pathways

Exciting advances are being made in developing treatments that target cancer metabolism. One approach, known as metabolic rewiring, involves manipulating the metabolic pathways in cancer cells to make them more susceptible to existing therapies (Martinez-Outschoorn, U.E., Peiris-Pages, M., Pestell, R.G., Sotgia, F., Lisanti, M.P., 2017).

Another promising strategy is dietary intervention, particularly the use of ketogenic diets, which are low in carbohydrates and high in fats. The rationale here is to starve cancer cells of glucose, their preferred fuel source, while providing normal cells with an alternative energy source like ketones (Weber, D.D., Aminzadeh-Gohari, S., Kofler, B., 2018).

Case Studies of Successful Treatments Based on This New Understanding

Several case studies show promise in the metabolic approach to treating cancer. In one instance, a patient with stage IV aggressive lymphoma opted for metabolic therapy, which included a ketogenic diet, supplements, fasting, and hyperbaric oxygen therapy, after declining chemotherapy. After six months, a PET scan showed no active cancer (Schwartz, L., Buhler, L., Icard, P., Lincet, H., Steyaert, J.M., 2014). In another case, a 38-year-old man with chronic lymphocytic leukemia used a similar metabolic approach after traditional treatments failed to halt the progression of his disease. After three months, his symptoms had improved significantly (Zuccoli, G., Marcello, N., Pisanello, A., et al., 2010).

While these cases are encouraging, it’s important to remember that metabolic treatments are still experimental. However, these cases provide hope and pave the way for continued exploration of the metabolic theory of cancer and its potential to revolutionize cancer treatment.

Metabolic Rewiring: A New Frontier in Cancer Therapy

A key breakthrough in the metabolic approach to cancer treatment is the concept of ‘metabolic rewiring.’ This strategy doesn’t directly kill cancer cells. Instead, it focuses on making them more susceptible to existing cancer therapies, effectively enhancing the efficacy of conventional treatments. Under normal circumstances, cancer cells are remarkably adaptable. Their metabolic flexibility allows them to switch between different energy-producing pathways, ensuring survival even under adverse conditions. This adaptability is one reason why cancer treatment is so challenging. Metabolic rewiring aims to exploit this metabolic flexibility to the detriment of the cancer cells. The strategy involves manipulating the cancer cells’ metabolic pathways to trap them in a less flexible, more vulnerable state. Once the cells are ‘rewired’ in this way, they become more susceptible to conventional therapies such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

For example, one way to ‘rewire’ the metabolism of cancer cells is by targeting their reliance on the amino acid glutamine. Many cancer cells are ‘addicted’ to glutamine and rely on it to fuel their growth and proliferation. By inhibiting the pathways involved in glutamine metabolism, researchers can effectively ‘starve’ the cancer cells and make them more vulnerable to treatment (Martinez-Outschoorn, U.E., Peiris-Pages, M., Pestell, R.G., Sotgia, F., Lisanti, M.P., 2017).

Another strategy involves manipulating the tumor microenvironment, which often creates conditions favorable to cancer cell survival and growth. By altering this environment, for instance, by changing the acidity levels or oxygen availability, it might be possible to disrupt the cancer cells’ metabolic pathways and increase their susceptibility to therapy.

It’s important to note that these strategies are still in the early stages of development, with most research conducted in labs. 

Ketogenic Diets: Starving Cancer, One Cell at a Time

The ketogenic diet, a dietary regimen low in carbohydrates and high in fats, has emerged as a promising strategy in the metabolic approach to cancer treatment. Initially developed in the 1920s as a treatment for epilepsy, the diet has gained traction recently for its potential anti-cancer effects. The premise of the ketogenic diet as a cancer therapy is simple: starve the cancer cells of glucose, their preferred fuel, while providing healthy cells with an alternative energy source. Here’s how it works.

Cancer cells have a unique metabolic quirk – they’re particularly fond of glucose. They consume it much more than normal cells, even when oxygen is available, a phenomenon known as the Warburg effect. This avid consumption of glucose is thought to fuel their rapid growth and proliferation. The ketogenic diet turns this metabolic characteristic against the cancer cells. By significantly reducing carbohydrate intake, the diet forces the body to switch from using glucose as its primary energy source to using ketone bodies – molecules produced from fat breakdown in the liver. We call this shift ‘nutritional ketosis.’ Theoretically, this dietary adjustment could ‘starve’ cancer cells of glucose while furnishing healthy cells with an alternative energy source. Unlike cancer cells, healthy cells are adaptable and can efficiently use ketones for energy when glucose is scarce. This metabolic flexibility allows normal cells to survive and function under the dietary conditions imposed by a ketogenic diet (Weber, D.D., Aminzadeh-Gohari, S., Kofler, B., 2018).

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Early laboratory and clinical studies suggest that a ketogenic diet can slow tumor growth and enhance the efficacy of other cancer treatments. For instance, a 2018 study demonstrated that lung cancer tumors in mice fed a ketogenic diet grew slower than those on a regular diet (Weber, D.D., Aminzadeh-Gohari, S., Kofler, B., 2018). These results appear promising, yet they highlight the need for more research to fully comprehend the potential and limitations of ketogenic diets as a cancer treatment strategy. Nutritional interventions like this one represent an exciting frontier in cancer research, providing a gentler, potentially more sustainable approach to fighting this devastating disease.

Controversies and Future Directions

The proposition that cancer is primarily a metabolic disease has stirred controversy, with many researchers questioning whether it discounts genetics’s vital role in cancer development. After all, decades of scientific evidence have established that mutations in specific genes can lead to cancer. However, proponents of the metabolic theory argue that these genetic changes are secondary events driven by disruptions in cellular energy metabolism. It’s important to note that these two theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive. While metabolic disturbances may better explain some cancers, others might arise primarily due to genetic abnormalities.

The Need for Integrative Approaches

As our understanding of cancer deepens, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a one-size-fits-all approach falls short. Rather than viewing the genetic and metabolic theories as competing, researchers should aim to integrate them to create a more comprehensive picture of this complex disease. Recognizing that genetic and metabolic factors contribute to cancer could lead to more effective and personalized treatments. For instance, combination therapies targeting both the genetic mutations and metabolic abnormalities in cancer cells could potentially be more successful than strategies focusing on one or the other.

Future Research Directions

The exploration of cancer as a metabolic disease opens new avenues for research. One promising direction is the further study of dietary interventions, like the ketogenic diet, and their role in cancer treatment. Additionally, understanding the specific metabolic vulnerabilities of different types of cancer could lead to the development of new drugs that target these weaknesses. More in-depth investigations into the relationship between metabolism and genetics could yield significant insights. For example, how do metabolic changes influence gene expression in cancer cells? And conversely, how do genetic mutations impact cellular metabolism?

As we continue to delve into the metabolic underpinnings of cancer, likely, treatment strategies will increasingly focus on targeting the unique metabolic characteristics of cancer cells. These could range from lifestyle modifications, like diet and exercise, to new drugs that interfere with specific metabolic pathways.

Don’t keep your thoughts to yourself—join the conversation! Share your experiences, questions, and insights in the comments below. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of those affected by prostate issues. Let’s empower each other and create a supportive community! Comment now!


As we explore the dynamic landscape of cancer research, one truth resonates strongly: shifting paradigms shape scientific discovery and treatment strategies. The metabolic theory of cancer, a perspective that has gained momentum over recent years, illuminates this concept. We are redefining our understanding of this complex illness by viewing cancer as a metabolic disease rather than purely genetic. This shift implies a promising future for patients where treatments may become more targeted, effective, and less detrimental to their health. It paves the way for potential dietary interventions, lifestyle changes, and novel drug treatments that could improve patient outcomes and quality of life.

In conclusion, as we continue to delve into the intricate world of cancer research, it’s apparent that our evolving understanding will keep reshaping the future of cancer treatment. Embracing the metabolic theory does not mean disregarding decades of genetic research. Instead, it means integrating this knowledge to forge a more comprehensive, multifaceted understanding of cancer. By doing so, we can hope to inch closer to a future where cancer is no longer a feared adversary but a conquerable foe. The journey is far from over, but we are making progress with every stride. The horizon looks promising, and this optimism will fuel our pursuit of a cancer-free future.


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7 thoughts on “Shifting Paradigms: Cancer as a Metabolic Disease, Not Genetic”

  1. I am excited that researchers are coming around to looking at cancer from a metabolic perspective in addition to the genetic focus that predominates and has predominated for decades. Certainly, there have been success stories using diet and other nontraditional therapies.

    The side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatments are more than I personally want to go through. Often they are worse than the disease. You hear story after story of people who have switched diets and worked on the mindset and other avenues such as cold weather bathing and seen results that rival the more intrusive therapies (that are also big money makers for doctors and big pharma).

    When I was diagnosed with cancer, I immediately started doing extensive research and talked to acquaintances who were in the medical care field. Not people who were totally outside the field of cancer treatments, as I knew that likely would be as good as asking someone on the street.

    After weeks, I came up with a plan and started implementing it. The costs for my food went up as I added supplements and expensive foods to my shopping list. But, as I started and followed through, I felt myself feeling better and better. The results affected more than the cancer. It is heartening to see that finally, the establishment is giving some credence to alternative solutions for cancer. I concur most heartedly!

    1. Dear Dave,

      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and personal experiences. It’s heartening to hear you’ve taken a proactive approach to your health, especially after your cancer diagnosis. Your journey of extensive research, lifestyle changes, and embracing alternative solutions is truly inspiring.

      As the article highlights, the metabolic theory of cancer offers a fresh lens through which we can understand this complex disease, potentially paving the way for more effective and less invasive treatments. Your testament to the benefits of dietary and lifestyle changes further underscores the potential of this approach.

      It’s indeed encouraging to see the scientific community gradually recognizing the value of alternative solutions and the role of metabolism in cancer. Your story is a beacon of hope for many, emphasizing the importance of staying informed, open-minded, and proactive in our health journeys.

      Thank you for your kind words about our articles. We aim to provide valuable information that can benefit everyone, whether directly affected by prostate cancer or simply seeking to improve their overall health. Your feedback is invaluable, and we hope to continue offering content that resonates with readers like you.

      Wishing you continued health and wellness,


  2. This is a very interesting read on viewing cancer from another perspective then the genetic one and I will send it to my dad who is momentarily a survivor of prostate cancer. I had never heard that his dad or his grandfather had cancer, so I am convicned as well that it isn’t always a genetic issue, but also a lifestyle. Although I think that at a certain age, still changing the lyfestyle is probably always better then not changing anything, but do you think as well that the dammage is done at 70 years old or not? I mean, he never stopped smoking and drinking regular alcohol, has diabetes..I hope I can convince that he will have a better life still left when changing ways.

    1. Dear Lizzy

      Thank you for taking the time to read the article and share your connection to the topic. I’m genuinely sorry to hear about your dad’s battle with prostate cancer, and I praise you for seeking ways to support and guide him.

      As to your question about lifestyle changes at 70, there is always time to make a positive change in one’s lifestyle. While certain damages from past habits may not be entirely reversible, adopting healthier habits can still greatly benefit overall well-being and slow the progression of certain illnesses.

      Regarding smoking and alcohol consumption, while it’s ideal to quit these habits, even reducing the frequency can have positive effects. For instance, quitting smoking at any age can improve lung function and reduce the risk of other related diseases. Similarly, reducing alcohol intake can support liver function and overall health.

      Diabetes, as you mentioned, is another problem. Proper management of diabetes through diet and medication can seriously affect one’s quality of life and longevity.

      Lastly, any steps toward a healthier lifestyle can work wonders. Encourage your dad to consult his healthcare provider about potential lifestyle changes and their benefits. Every small change can contribute to a better quality of life.

      Wishing you and your dad all the best on this journey. Stay strong and hopeful.

      Warm regards,


  3. This was a really interesting article and it is strange that in this day and age that a proper cure has never been found. Oh in some cases it can be put in remission, but ultimately this disease eventually takes our lives if we don’t die of something else first. I look forward to hearing more about this metabolic cure that they are working on and seeing how this approach evolves. I wonder what the time frame will be?

    1. Dear Michel,
      Thanks for your comment! It’s really puzzling why finding a solid cure for cancer has been so challenging. It’s true; sometimes, it seems like we can only keep it at bay for a while. I’m also eager to see how this new approach to treating cancer as a metabolic disease pans out. It’s hard to say when we’ll see concrete results, as medical research can be a slow process with lots of testing and trials. But, fingers crossed, this new angle brings us closer to finding more effective ways to beat cancer. Keep an eye out for more updates on this!

      Best Regards,


  4. Thank you so much for sharing. I found this article on “Shifting Paradigms: Cancer as a Metabolic Disease, Not Genetic” fascinating! It challenges the traditional belief that cancer is solely a result of genetic mutations and highlights the significant role of metabolic dysfunction in its development. The concept of targeting cancer cells’ altered metabolism for treatment sounds promising.

    However, I’m curious to know if this metabolic approach to cancer treatment has been tested extensively in clinical trials? Are there any specific metabolic pathways or therapies that show promising results in inhibiting cancer growth?

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