A blog about microbes, diseases and biomedical research advances. Posts in English or German.
It was all over the news today. The cure for cancer has finally been found! A group of researchers in the US did it, and other cancer scientists like me may just call it a day and stop looking for better ways to deal with cancer now.
– Well, not quite. We are still far from a (even partial) cancer cure, and there are several reasons why these new ‘unprecedented results’ should be taken with a pinch of salt for now.
First of all, this ‘cancer breakthrough’ is not as well established as many news outlets made it seem. The data that are commonly referenced – from several small studies of immunotherapy treatments in leukemia patients – were presented at an international conference on Sunday by Dr Stanley Riddell, of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre. And here is the catch: these studies are not yet published in scientific journals. We therefore only have a rough idea of the study data (from what was presented at the conference and what was stated in press releases), and we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions before we can see the whole picture.
For example, Dr Riddell reported an ‘extraordinary’ response rate of this immunotherapy in acute lymphoblastic leukaemia patients. For this study, 35 patients with late stage, hard-to-treat cancers were injected with immune cells that were engineered to attack their cancer cell. Of those 35 patients, a staggering 33 were reported to have positive responses – they had a so-called “cancer remission”, which means that the cancer cells in their bodies were greatly reduced after the treatment.
Still, whether they were cured is hard to tell. If even tiny amounts of cancer cells survive and adapt to the treatment, they may expand and the cancer can thrive again – a process that commonly occurs following many kinds of treatments and is called recurrence. From the data presented, it is not clear whether the patients had a long-term survival advantage, or if the treatment only helped them short term.
In general, the studies that were presented were done on ‘liquid’ cancers – cancers of blood cells that are quite different from many solid tumours. The approach might work in other kinds of cancers as well, but this still needs to be shown.
Additionally, this effective treatment may come at a price: seven of the 35 patients in the acute lymphoblastic leukaemia study experienced severe side effects, and two died during the treatment (maybe as a result of it). Again, the extent of the dangers associated with this immunotherapy is difficult to judge without having the full data of the study available.
Which brings me to my real point: Most of the headlines extrapolate from a talk that was given at a conference. The studies are not even published yet, but they are still widely covered in the press. In (too) many cases, I had to read more than half of the article to be warned that this research is still preliminary, and sometimes this information was lacking completely. In even more cases, the headlines were sensationalised and proclaimed a future cancer cure or even a cancer vaccine, when the data actually indicated that this treatment may be quite effective for a certain type of cancer.
This “hyping” of unpublished studies can be very harmful for the public understanding (and image) of science, and in my opinion it should be avoided. If one covers a topic that is not yet accepted in the scientific community (which usually happens through formal publication in a scientific journal after revision of the study by other scientists in the field), journalists should be careful with the claims they make about the research. This research may well be very exciting and promising, but it is not the time to hail the discovery of a cancer cure yet. We will see which picture emerges in the next few months, and whether we truly witnessed a breakthrough this week.
Addition: CRUK wrote a very helpful and well-researched blog post about this topic today, and it can be found here.