Health News Review

In its September issue, Prevention magazine – in its “Need to Know: Medical Breakthroughs” section – has this headline:

Silver Bullet Cancer Drug Set to Begin Clinical Trials

The brief story that follows trumpets one study in five mice, and then reveals that human trials are expected to begin in early 2014.  Begin, not wrap up.  Yet Prevention already calls it a “silver bullet.”

Here are some definitions I found for the term “silver bullet”:

  • a specific, fail-safe solution to a problem(from the notion that a bullet made of silver is necessary to kill a werewolf)
  • the term has been adopted into a general metaphor, where “silver bullet” refers to any straightforward solution perceived to have extreme effectiveness. The phrase typically appears with an expectation that some new technological development or practice will easily cure a major prevailing problem.
  • An infallible means of attack or defense.
  • A simple remedy for a difficult or intractable problem.

I don’t know what definition Prevention had in mind when it headlined this “breakthrough.”  But I do know that 4 months followup in five mice does not translate immediately to a fail-safe, infallible, or simple remedy for a human.

I found something on Stanford’s website which I believe relates to the work Prevention hyped. (I can only guess since the magazine didn’t cite a reference, nor any researchers’ names.) There is no hype in the Stanford article.  In fact, it paints a sobering picture of how huge is the leap from mouse to human applicability.  Excerpt:

“Unfortunately, the process of preparing for human clinical trials is long. The initial experiments were done in animals and the animal versions of anti-CD47 antibody cannot be used in humans. So researchers first have to create a “humanized” antibody to CD47, then the production of antibody must be scaled up in a sterile facility of the kind that is used to create other pharmaceutical products. Finally, clinical trials must be designed so that the data they generate will produce a valid scientific result, and the trials must be approved by regulatory officials.

All of this takes time.”

So, no human cancer breakthrough yet.  No silver bullet yet.  Breathe deeply and move on carefully to the next “need to know” piece.


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Fred posted on August 31, 2013 at 3:18 am

I have late-stage kidney cancer and while the drug, Inlyta, keeps me alive for the time being, my future likely depends on a breakthrough like this. Hope is a powerful thing.

    Gary Schwitzer posted on September 2, 2013 at 8:17 pm


    I appreciate your note.

    Let me emphasize what I often must emphasize to first-time visitors to this site or to people who are unfamiliar with what this site is about.

    We evaluate health care journalism and other media messages about health care. In so doing, we would probably never endorse the term “breakthrough” or “silver bullet” to describe results in 5 mice. We think that is premature, misleading, and potentially causes harm.

    I would never take away hope from anyone. But I would discourage journalists and other media messengers from prematurely promoting hope by calling something a “silver bullet for cancer” when it hasn’t even begun human trials yet.

Alicia Thomas posted on September 16, 2013 at 9:09 am

These are just the types of articles contribute to the ignorance the general public has about metastatic cancers. People are continuously reading articles like this and quoted to me the results as if I could be on a different therapy. Maybe if I wore pink and read prevention magazine more often, I would have been cured. Thanks for the clarification! If only I were a mouse :).