NPR Reports:

This experimental drug could change the field of cancer research

I hate to be the voice of grumpy, because this is wonderful news, but I dislike the title.

  1. The article doesn’t describe anything changing the whole field of cancer research (which is the process of studying cancer, not a clinical practice). Changing cancer research would involve new tools for research—like better models or AI–or whole new concepts in cancer biology, and checkpoint inhibitors are neither. They are great, but they are not so new as all that.
  2. This is an exciting, small scale result in rectal cancer. I am super excited by it. BUT . . . not only does it need to be replicated on a larger scale, but patients need long term tracking. One of the biggest problems with cancer is recurrence. Tumors can seem to disappear but then come back even years later. My deepest hope for these patients that it does not.
  3. There are over 100 types of cancer, and within each of those, the disease comes in many forms. This drug will work better on some than others, because they are each their own disease. It is beyond wonderful that all 18 patients had a complete response, but it doesn’t quite merit the description of “changing the field of cancer research.”
  4. Why do I care? Because when the public is bombarded with headlines declaring that science is performing miracles, and remarkable advances are somehow more than just that, they build expectations that aren’t met. It undermines science, and we’ve seen how well that has worked out.