Things CNN didn’t report about the MD Anderson “cancer cure close” story

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Here’s what CNN could/should have included in between breaths of its breathless hype of “breaking news…breakthrough…exclusive” reporting – what science journalist Paul Raeburn says “could be the worst case of hyping cancer cures I”ve ever seen, and I”ve seen a lot.”

The ScienceInsider blog of Science magazine reported:

The moon shot metaphor brings to mind previous goals set for cancer, such as Richard Nixon’s 1971 war on cancer. Another example is former National Cancer Institute Director Andrew von Eschenbach’s goal of eliminating suffering and death from cancer by 2015. Some researchers say such attempts to reduce cancer to an engineering problem ignore the disease’s complexity and the unpredictability of science.

“The problem is not just one engineering task; it’s a hundred different scientific problems. We’re making steady progress, but to say we’re going to eliminate suffering and even prevent death is fraught with a lot of difficulty,” says Bruce Chabner of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Chabner also points out that pushing back cancer is a job bigger than one institution. “It’s going to take all the talent around the world.”

Lung cancer researcher John Minna of UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas likes the idea of “uniting everybody as a team,” but he also wonders whether “this is the right of one institution.” Some researchers suggest the program is actually a public relations effort to raise funds at a time when federal grants are scarce.

The announcement follows a bumpy first year for DePinho at MD Anderson. Last spring, he and his wife, researcher Lynda Chin, came under scrutiny after the state-funded Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) awarded a $20 million incubator grant to MD Anderson and Rice University after a 3-week review. CPRIT’s chief scientific officer, Nobelist Alfred Gilman, resigned partly over the grant, which was withdrawn and will be resubmitted again for a more in-depth review. Questions have also been raised involving DePinho’s ties to companies.

Despite DePinho’s problems, MD Anderson has lured some big names in the past year, including genomics researcher Andy Futreal from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom. Another recruit is James Allison of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, who had developed a widely heralded new immunotherapy drug for melanoma.

Another issue, less connected to the Moonshot announcement but certainly still relevant, is what the Houston Chronicle and Retraction Watch blog reported, “M.D. Anderson professor under fraud probe.

But resignations, questions about conflicts of interest and fraud probes are not likely to be the kinds of angles and issues one pursues when there are “exclusive” reporting arrangements between a news organization and a medical center.

Addendum on October 23, 2012:  For another related followup, see “Did Texas cancer research institute meddle with peer review?” on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.


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Greg Pawelski

September 29, 2012 at 2:48 pm

An article in the May 3, 2012 New England Journal of Medicine examined the concept of translational research and its largely unfulfilled mission. Are these clinicians cynics? These investigators reviewed many of the precepts of clinical research and described mechanisms by which outcomes could be improved. They recognized that academic medical settings are not always conducive to conducting clinical research.

They go on to examine the performance metrics by which clinicians are gauged (tests performed and numbers of patients seen) and contrast that with the equally unsatisfactory metrics for academicians (grants received and papers published). Grinding patients through ill-conceived clinical trials is no way to cure cancer. What is needed are intelligent solutions to complex problems.


    October 15, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Excellent comment. From an insider’s perspective, these are dead on. The academic medical center these days is interested in very little of what used to be the traditional mission of the university, the pursuit of truth. Now, it’s all about capturing the most RVUs, impact factor above good science, and clinical trials for the sake of clinical trials.

Flemming Rasmussen

October 1, 2012 at 10:34 am

Bruce Chabner’s ‘engineering’ anology above remains simplistic. Often overlooked is the cancer patient’s role in overcoming their disease, because cancer isn’t a disease where anyone would benefit from being passive or detached from what ‘medicine’ is recommending to them. From diet alone, many of us are unaware that we are stacking the odds of being a cancer statistic because of our dietary habits! Reading the blogs, it also appears that many medical (mainstream or alternative) practitioners, are equally naive of the intricacies of the interplay between dietary factors. I am sure we will get there, am simply hoping the pace would pick-up to dispel the likelihood of a ‘one pill or treatment’ miracle while tackling the prevention component of the disease with renewed vigour


    October 15, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    Your statements may be true, but the bulk of epidemiological associations between diet and cancer are at best, a morass, and at worst, junk science. The only way to get at true risks between diet and cancer will ultimately be to deploy a reductionist approach. Focus on the compound(s) in the diet you are most interested in from the sea of association/correlation studies out there and study it prospectively, using the best animal models available.