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A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Sunday, April 1, 2012

A cure for cancer....

Just a few minutes ago I read a very concise and informative piece on why there is no single "cure for cancer" by Michael Freeman. It's well worth a read here - full disclosure: I have written for the journal thrice before (On statistics, nuclear power and homeopathy) but had nothing to do with the creation of this particular article. The article itself is well worth a read and explains clearly why there is no one cure for cancer, as it is an entire class of diseases all involving run-away and aggressive cell growth. But check out the very first comment on the article...


Yes folks, crack out the tin foil hats - it's conspiracy time!


This kind of argument comes up time and time again in cancer research - it goes something like "there IS a cure for cancer but big pharma are covering it up to make money!" And a surprisingly large amount of people believe this -  in the example above, about one third of commenters supported the comment, implying a certain sympathy for the position of the poster. This wasn't a comment in isolation, I see it all the time. Just a few comments later in the same article we have this..


Just add a few lines about Freemasons, Jewish cabals and new world order and we're DONE!


These kind of arguments follow a familiar pattern - immediately after such assertions, there are others agreeing and suggesting their very own 'proven' cancer cures, from vitamin B17 to TBC to licking the underside of a gazelle during a full moon or some such. Essentially, the logic is that big pharma is engaged in some en masse conspiracy to withhold the cure.


Withholding the cure - What would Robert Smith think?!


These claims, though popular, are easy to show as bunk. This is not a defense of big pharmacy, who often engage in frankly appalling practices, but rather a discussion of why there is no cure and why even if there was a conspiracy would be a ludicrous idea. To see just how ludicrous, consider the following points - 

  • Cancer is not one disease - it is an entire class of malignant neoplasms, growing aggressively and invasively. There is quite simply a world of difference between different growths and tumours; some will respond to surgery, some to radiotherapy and some to chemotherapy. Some sadly are too difficult to treat or not likely to respond to anything. The survival rates for different cancers vary hugely - non-melanoma skin cancer is easy to treat and results in very few deaths. Pancreatic cancer on the other hand is almost invariably fatal. The idea of a single magic bullet to treat all these various forms with different causes, pathologies and responses is utterly unbelievable.

  • If big pharma did possess a cure for cancer, then surely they would not have CEOS, senior executives and high level researchers dying of cancer. Pretend this is the case; where then would that knowledge extend to ? Lower level researchers and workers could not be kept from the truth for ever, and the whole conspiracy would inevitably collapse. This problem is only compounded if the secret is shared between all big pharmaceutical companies, multiplying the number of potential leaks. A secret like that is not possible to contain long, no matter how unethical the companies involved.

  •  Finally, the obvious point - if there was a cure for cancer, why on earth would a company NOT sell it ? Their business is to sell cures and treatments, and a cure for an entire class of disease that affects over a third of us throughout life would always have a market. It would make not one modicum of sense to cover up such an advance! Or as I put less eloquently on my reply on thejournal.ie ..


Not going to win points for subtle reasoning....


The idea there is a cure is simply not supported by any evidence, and the fallacy is based on a (occasionally justified) hatred of big pharma; but cancer is not that simple, and anyone postulating a simple solution to a complex condition should be viewed with an air of sceptical caution.  There are enough myths and misunderstandings about cancer without postulating the outlandish.

Edit: After receiving a threat from one of the posters in question I have amended the post edit out their identity. The individual ascertained some personal information about me, including where I worked and I decided to yield to avoid any drama. This is pointless, as it can clearly be seen if you look at the comment in the original thread.

7 comments:

  1. I don't know enough about it, but if you look at the use of bacteriophage in the former USSR (there was a good Horizons documentary about it) they had a solid treatment for almost all bacterial infections.
    Granted that they can't really work like antibiotics since you need to identify the species (or even more specific) rather than blindly using antibiotics.
    Another large obstacle to their use is that (from what I understand) they can't be patented since the technology already exists. I'm sure there are other reasons too, like the possible fear of being injected with viruses(!)

    Happily open to corrections/clarifications because most of what I know on this subject came from one BBC documentary.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Paul - cheers for reading! Phage therapy (as the cool kids seem to call it) certainly is promising for some bacterial infections

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phage_therapy

    I'm by no means an expert on virology but I think one of the problems is it's only effective with bacteria, whereas most cancers have little to no baterial origin, instead stemming from faulty replication and out of control division. What I have seen is some evidence that while phage therapy won't directly treat cancer, it can change the tumour micro-environment and perhaps manipulate the situation into making it easier to treat!

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20232198

    There is also the rather cool idea of using phages to specifically carry drugs to target cancer cells solely

    http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6750/8/37

    So certainly, phage therapy has applications but it doesn't directly target eukarotic cells but advances in medicine can come from all directions!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Hi David, Just a few minutes before seeing yoy tweet, I tweeted this: Urban myths become more true the more they spread. They often become dangerous, such as the "fact" that sugar causes cancer.

    ReplyDelete
  4. There is cure for everything but pharma companies feel it reluctant to sell it on prices which can be afforded by everyone. Thus, its on halt still.

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