The elephant in the room: Should a credible news program – CBS’ 60 Minutes – devote so much attenton to this story about a promising but completely uNPRoven technique for "curing all cancers"? There are several reasons the answer should be no.
(1) Far from being a breakthrough, at this point the technique (it’s not a treatment yet) shows some characteristics which may benefit cancer treatment at some point in the future. This is assuming, generously, that many years of research ahead will lead to human trials, which in turn will produce safe and positive outcomes superior to those of current treatments.
(2) The story features a very sympathetic figure who is terminally ill and "racing the clock" to find a cure for others before he dies. This creates a context of unjustified hope and emotional support.
(3) The technique is subject of a publicity and fundraising campaign which the program, by virtue of its crediblity and audience, is supporting.
If the report were to be done and broadcast on 60 Minutes, it would have benefitted considerably from additional context provided by other credible researchers. Did CBS look for and fail to find anyone skeptical of this technique? None was interviewed.
The story has elements that make it appealing as an act of infotainment: a lone-wolf outsider who can cure cancer with pie pans and hot dogs, a man motivated by his desire to help "hollow-eyed kids" with cancer, and hopeful researchers with impressive institutional affiliations, including a Nobel laureate said to have turned from skeptic to believer by the time he died from cancer.
But good stories don’t always make good journalism. This is such a case.
The segment is likely to raise hopes, clearly prematurely if not falsely, of millions of people affected by cancer, or even cancer risk. This is the opposite of public service.
The costs at this point would be purely speculative, as it’s not clear what kind of nanoparticles would be used, what the machines would cost to build, the many factors which will likely complicate the process even before it reaches human testing.
It’s not necessary in this case for the story to mention costs.
The only evidence of benefits given is a brief description of the effects the technique appears to have had on the cells of rat tumors. Even within the realm of animal testing, there is no quantification of benefit. Were all cancer cells killed in all rabbits and rats tested? Some in all? Some in some? None in some? Sweeping statements such as "They’ve already shown that the Kanzius machine can heat nanoparticles and cook cancer to death in animals" does nothing to educate viewers.
The segment repeatedly states that the treatment has no side effects. This is at least premature, at worst deceptive.
The segment should have stated that meaningful clinical outcomes (such as death and quality of life) even in animals have not been demonstrated, that little is known about the long-term effects of the treatment on surrounding tissues, and that the use of nanoparticles in cancer treatment is so new that it’s premature to declare that their use in cancer treatment is without side effects.
One researcher interviewed makes clear that the inference that the technique does no harm to surrounding tissue is based only on "gross inspection" of that tissue. But the story simplistically states at one point, "Kanzius put his hand in the field to demonstrate that radio waves are harmless to humans." That’s not proof of anything.
The only evidence of benefit cited is a microscopic evaluation of rat tumor cells that makes it appear cancer cells were killed without harming the tissues around it.
The report should have made clear that this is very flimsy evidence to justify the enthusiasm that a small group of researchers is showing at this point. Instead, we got an awe-struck comment from the reporter: "Gosh, it does look like one of those science fiction movies."
The question here is whether the story uses anecdote, emotional appeal and speculation to falsely raise hopes about a safe cure for all cancers. The answer clearly is yes.
The anecdotes and stories from the cancer ward (hollow eyes of children with cancer, etc.) may distort viewers’ perceptions about the problem. Would the technique even work for the kinds of cancers those children had? Note that the story said, "So far the Kanzius method has only been appolied to solid, localized tumors in animals."
The segment draws exclusively on the inventor and three credible but potentially self-interested supporters, one of whom is dead.
This is unsatisfactory: One or more independent cancer researchers should have been interviewed, including one who is currently doing other research with nanoparticles and one expert radiologist.
These sources could have provided necessary context for this history and outcomes of previous promised "breakthroughs," the implications of novelty and the many things which remain unknown.
The segment should have reported whether the researchers interviewed have a financial or other interest in the procedure.
The segment mentions other treatment options only in a glancing way and in the most negative light–and without indicating that many cancers are treatable, and sent into remission, with current techniques.
The segment makes clear that the technique is not available for human use. It says it is at least four years away from human trials, assuming all goes well.
The segment implies the technique is a breakthrough and entirely novel. This is not true. The technique is a combination of three treatment approaches familiar to cancer researchers:
The segment should have mentioned these things.
We can’t be sure if the segment relied solely or largely on a news release. We do know that the segment only discussed the perspectives of the inventor and three potentially self-interested supporters, one of whom is dead.