So it happened again. An underreported story about a half-baked advance in cancer medicine caught fire and scorched its way through social media, onto network TV, and into the minds of millions of people.
To start, no. There won’t be “a complete cure for cancer” in a year’s time, as the chairman of a small Israeli biotechnology firm predicted to the Jerusalem Post. The claim, absurd on its face, was particularly frustrating to those who work in medicine and drug development because it seemed so obvious there was not enough evidence to make it.
It doesn’t take a lot of complicated biology to understand why. You simply need the information contained in the Jerusalem Post’s article: that the data available so far are from a single study in mice and that they have not been published in a scientific journal.
Saying that most experiments in mice don’t translate to human beings doesn’t quite get the point across. It’s more correct to say that almost none of them do.
According to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the odds of a medicine being tested in human beings proving safe and effective enough for widespread use are just 1 in 10. Another analysis by MIT economists gives slightly better odds, of 1 in 7. But both groups agree that the chances of success for cancer drugs are far worse than the norm: 1 in 20, according to BIO, and 1 in 30 according to the otherwise more optimistic MIT group.
Stated another way, up to 97 percent of cancer drugs fail. What’s more, the Israeli company, Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies Ltd. (AEBi), is at an earlier stage in the development of its drug, a point at which its odds are still lower. The Jerusalem Post article says that the company has finished its first experiment in mice, but that it hopes to begin clinical trials that could be completed in a few years.
Another useful number on experience and speed: Loxo Oncology, which is being purchased by Eli Lilly for $8 billion, got its first medicine from mouse studies to approval quickly. Quickly, in this case, is five years.
If you have this background, the original quotes in the Jerusalem Post article sound like an entrepreneur trying to get attention for a technology he believes in. The Jerusalem Post quotes Dan Aridor, the chairman of AEBi, as saying: “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. Our solution will be both generic and personal.” Plenty of entrepreneurs hope that. But reality is very, very hard. In another interview with The Times of Israel, the company’s chief executive gave somewhat less enthusiastic quotes.
That shouldn’t mask the fantastic progress being made with cancer drugs. A simple example: Jimmy Carter, the humanitarian and former U.S. president, is alive thanks in large part to a drug called Keytruda, made by Merck, that primes the immune system to attack tumors.
But part of the problem is that even in cases like Carter’s, this amazing progress comes with complications. Not everyone has such an amazing response to these cutting-edge treatments. In first-line melanoma, a quarter of patients who get the drug will still die within a year. But in such a hard-to-treat disease, that’s a great result.
Life is complicated, and so are cancer treatments. Cancer is older than human beings. Scientists have found dinosaurs with metastatic tumors. It’s simply not likely we’re going to outsmart all cancers with a single treatment, without drawbacks.
That’s the seductive message that sold here, though. It’s what Glenn Beck tweeted: “A TOTAL cure for cancer. Cheap, quick, no side effects.” It’s what led the Drudge Report to link to the story, saying: “Israeli Scientists Think They Found Cancer Cure…” It’s what led to coverage on myriad other news sources, including local news.
Jonathan Swift noted that a lie can traverse the world while the truth limps behind it 300 years ago. In the age of social media, the problem seems as though it has gotten worse: think the rise of Theranos, or believing that Jack Andraka’s high school science fair project was a breakthrough. In medicine, this kind of virality means false hopes, dashed dreams, and a whole lot of hype. We are desperate for a solution.