Last month, the Israeli company Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies announced it would be revealing a cancer cure within a year. Company president Dan Aridor told reporters, “Our cancer cure will be effective from day one, will last a duration of a few weeks, and will have no or minimal side effects at a much lower cost than most other treatments on the market.”
For veteran skeptics, immediate red flags went up. First, there is the extravagant claim. Since there are hundreds of cancer types, the idea of a panacea wiping them all out is unrealistic. One reason there is no common cold cure is because, like cancer, the cold takes many forms. There are many distinct viruses. The signs and symptoms of the more than 200 types are indistinguishable from each other, but since each virus is its own, a solution that takes care of them all is highly unlikely. The same is true with a cancer cure.
As Dr. Steven Novella of the Yale Medical School explained, “Different cancers involve different tissues, different mutations, and different behaviors and features. While some treatments are effective against a variety of cancers, there is no one treatment effective against all cancers, let alone a cure for all cancers.”
Also, the idea that it would be relatively cheap and painless – two distinctions noticeably absent from current cancer treatments – increases the implausibility.
Second, even if this were a more measured claim – such as wiping out one type of cancer, mesothelioma – it was still broadcast to the media rather than presented to a peer-reviewed journal. Nor did the company release the results of any clinical trials. The number one sign of pseudoscience is bypassing peer review and clinical trials in order to take one’s claims straight to the press or public.
Which leads to the third red flag, the lack or replicability. Peer review is an essential part of the scientific process, but the process continues from there. Researchers look at the findings and see if they can replicate or falsify them. Because Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies workers have yet to explain their findings and show how they reached their conclusions, other scientists have no chance to test the ideas for soundness.
Finally, the assertion is not that all cancer has been cured, but that it will be. This is similar to claims of water-fueled vehicles, cold fusion, and perpetual motion machines, where a major breakthrough is always tantalizingly close yet never quite arrives. This provides a means to lure investors on a pseudoscientific wild goose chase. The only thing perpetual about one of those motion machines is the cash that self-aggrandizing promoters continue to rake in.
If a cancer panacea ever is achieved, it will likely be the result of slow, incremental progress, not a sudden leap from pipe dream to reality. Novella wrote it is “very unlikely that one lab will make all of the necessary advances by themselves. The basic science would likely be a collaboration of many labs, publishing over years, leaving a paper trail that any expert could follow. There would be presentations at meetings, and the basic science would be discussed in the community. So any claim that would require not just one step, but multiple steps, happening largely in secret in one lab over a relatively short period of time, stretches credulity.”
Now let’s take a closer look at the specifics of the Israeli laboratory’s claim. Its researchers say they can attach a toxin only to cancer cells and kill them, no matter the type of cancer. This coming cure is said to be based on phage display technology.
Frankly, I had never heard of phage display prior to looking into these claims, so I will defer to Novella: “Phages are viruses that attack bacteria, and can be made to display antibodies on their outside. AEB claims that they can use this technology to instead display small peptides. With this they create what they call multi-targeted toxins. They have three peptide toxins on one phage, each of which targets an aspect of a cancer cell without targeting healthy cells, and further they can target the cancer stem cells to prevent recurrence. This all sounds fine, a reasonable basis for cancer research. The problem is extrapolating from the basic idea to implausible clinical claims.”
Or, as noted by American Cancer Society Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, “Phage or peptide display techniques, while very powerful research tools for selecting high affinity binders, have had a difficult road as potential drugs.”
Consider how ignoring this and jumping right to the trumpeting of a cure impacts those with cancer and their loved ones. It fills them with false hope during a vulnerable time where they will cling to anything.
One of the clingers, profiled in Forbes, was Facebook user Lisa M., who posted, “So many negative comments on something potentially so amazing. Try optimism once, I promise it doesn’t hurt.” Nor does it help. How credulous or doubtful someone is about a treatment will have no impact whether it works. A person may genuinely believe that lemongrass water infused with peppermint spray will regrow their missing leg, but this blind faith will not make them once again bipedal.
How one reacts to the coming cancer cure news reveals more about the person than the supposed remedy. We have the naïve in the previous paragraph. We have the skeptics. We have confirmation bias from those with a religious bent; Facebook user Rebecca A. asked rhetorically, “Does anyone else find it interesting that a country and people that are favored by God comes up with a cure for a disease that afflicts the world!?”
Then there are those who believe, but add a sinister twist. Such as Facebook user Keven L., who warned, “These guys better get some serious security, because big pharma isn’t going to allow this if they can do something about it.” Another panicky prognostication came from Denise B., who ominously informed her followers, “Big pharma will never allow it. They won’t get the FDA approval here in the states. Too much money to be made ‘treating’ cancer.” Meanwhile, Ana E. gave us this chilling vision: “And then they somehow die in a horrible accident or go missing or become an enemy of the state.”
So when this cure in fact does not come out, it will be cited by these persons as evidence it has been repressed. In conspiracy theory circles, the lack of proof is the proof.