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Modern science has begun to accumulate small victories in the war on cancer. Many drugs identified in the popular press as "breakthroughs" or "revolutionary," unfortunately aren't.

After nearly a century of research, certain kinds of cancer are now survivable. In many countries, including both Russia and the United States, death rates from cancer are actually going down. If you read about a "breakthrough" or a "revolutionary cure" for cancer, however, you are almost certainly reading an exaggerated report.

Even though the survival rates for cancer's victims as a whole are going up, a diagnosis of cancer is still devastating to the individual who receives it. Even though methods of treatment are much gentler than they used to be, they are still very hard to endure. It's only natural to jump at any news that a cancer cure-all has been found that cures all cancers. The tragedy comes when patients who were receiving treatments with serious side effects that work stop them to look for magic bullets that are not really magical.

The Australian Cancer Cure That Isn't Yet

Here's a case in point. Numerous news outlets in the English-speaking world, especially in Australia, have reported that Dr. Philip J. Hogg, a legitimately distinguished medical researcher at the Prince of Wales Clinical School of Medicine at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has discovered a cure for cancer and begun to use it to treat cancer patients in the UK. Unfortunately, the news of the cure has raced a little ahead of the facts, a few decades ahead of the facts.

Dr. Hogg began studying blood proteins several decades ago. In the course of his research, he noticed that the ability of a cancerous tumor to develop its own blood vessels to escape and spread through the body depended on just two variations in the millions of base pairs in a strand of DNA that makes up one of the body's 23 chromosomes. Interfering with the action of these two base pairs (both of which code the placement of a sulfur-containing protein) just might stop a tumor from being able to go through the process of angiogenesis so cancer becomes metastatic. The popular press explained this process in turned of sugar metabolism referring to a theory articulated in 1929 that won Dr. Otto Warburg a Nobel Prize, overlooking the fact that Dr. Warburg later recanted the theory.

Misunderstanding by the press aside, Dr. Hogg was (and is) on to something. He began looking for compounds that interfere with this sulfur-containing protein, and the best candidates for use as cancer drugs contain arsenic. More specifically, Hogg and his colleagues developed a compound called 4-(N-(S-glutathionylacetyl)amino) phenylarsonous acid. It was not the first arsenic compound used in treating cancer, but in theory it should be very useful in fighting solid tumors, not just leukemia. News reporters probably weren't aware there were already other arsenic compounds in use to fight cancer.

A Clinical Trial That Wasn't Quite a Clinical Trial

Next the popular press reported that Dr. Hogg had run a clinical trial in England that showed that this new arsenic compound cures cancer. That wasn't exactly what occurred. Dr. Hogg and collaborators recruited 34 volunteers with advanced cancer for a Phase I clinical trial designed to make sure the compound wasn't toxic. The patients in this trial were people who unfortunately were not going to live very long in any case, but might benefit from the drug. Of the participants in the trial, some of whom had brain or pancreatic cancers, 14 did not die. That was a better result than expected, but "40 percent didn't die" would not have made a sexy headline. Instead, the press announced "Cure!" In the meantime, Dr. Hogg continued to refine his drug for another Phase I clinical trial involving 22 patients in Australia.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Abola MV, Prasad V. The Use of Superlatives in Cancer Research. JAMA Oncology (letter), 29 October 2015. Dilda PJ, Ramsay EE, Corti A, Pompella A, Hogg PJ. Metabolism of the tumor angiogenesis inhibitor 4-(N-(S-Glutathionylacetyl)amino)phenylarsonous acid. J Biol Chem. 2008 Dec 19
  • 283(51):35428-34. doi: 10.1074/jbc.M804470200. Epub 2008 Aug 23. PMID: 18723877.
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