Hibernation for cancer: ‘You wake up the patients and they are cured.’ Say what now?

Michael Joyce produces multimedia for HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

A story made the U.K. news rounds this week that probably should have been relegated to the editing room floor:

As one alert Twitter user noticed, these headlines collectively ignored a key detail–the patients are “um, rats.”

Beyond the fact that this was rodent research, there were some big red flags here, including how heavily the stories leaned on one researcher:

  • “We are aiming for at least one week (of drug-induced hibernation). It gives us time to deliver all the treatments that are needed to make the person cancer-free.” [Physicist Marco Durante]
  • “You wake up the patients and they are cured. That is our ambition.” [Durante again]
  • “If this approach works, there will be many of these patients with multiple metastases who will have hope. It will be a really huge step ahead.” [Guess who? Yep, Durante.]

The story blipped onto journalists’ radar because Durante presented a paper over the weekend at the 2017 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Boston. His presentation was based on a review article he co-authored last fall in the journal Life Sciences in Space Research.

The article summarizes the past 65 years in hibernation research, and speculates about potential human applications. Its title is worlds away from the news media headlines–“Hibernation for space travel: Impact on radioprotection.”

Cancer Research UK thankfully gives us the bigger picture: The facts

One publication that jumped all over this–and was both thorough and fair about it –was the science blog section of Cancer Research UK. Here is an excerpt that caught our eye: “At the moment there is no evidence to back up the claim that hibernation could help cure cancer. In fact there isn’t any evidence to show that people can be made to ‘hibernate’. And because of this, it’s far too early to say whether such an approach could help people with cancer.”

There are several lessons here.

  • It’s surprising that any thoughtful news organization would jump on the bandwagon and write eye-catching headlines despite these facts: Humans can’t naturally or artificially enter a state of hibernation; any existing evidence that hibernation might protect cells from radiation, or slow growth of tumors, comes exclusively from rodent studies; and finally, there is no existing evidence anywhere that hibernation cures cancer.
  • Second, it’s not just cavalier but downright irresponsible to dangle the word “cure” in media coverage of a science presentation, or paper, that had nothing to do with cancer or cancer research.
  • Finally, and this is most important to me, a good number of people with cancer are vulnerable–physically, emotionally, and often financially—and they are hungry for information that might improve their situation. To ignore this is one thing, but to exacerbate it with misinformation, is inexcusable.

How this went from a review article in a space research journal, to a national meeting, past editors at major publications, and into print should be all the reminder we need to do two simple things.

One, stay skeptical. If it sounds too good to be true it most likely is.

Second, don’t stay quiet. If you spot a story like this–one that’s way off the rails–get the word out on social media (or contact us). It’s one of the best ways we have to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

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