February 5, 2019

Have scientists found 'a complete cure for cancer'? (Hint: No.)

Daily Briefing

    Last week, social media was buzzing with a report from an Israeli newspaper about a group of scientists claiming to have discovered a "complete cure for cancer" that would be available within a year—but experts are warning people not to believe the unsubstantiated claims.

    What they value: Get to know the 5 types of cancer patients

    Background

    The Jerusalem Post last week published a story with the headline, "A Cure for Cancer? Israeli Scientists May Have Found One." The article focused on Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies (AEBi), a small company that began conducting research in 2000 to develop an anti-cancer drug cocktail.

    According to WIRED, the article relied largely on an interview with AEBi Chair Dan Aridor, who told the Jerusalem Post that AEBi's scientist believes the company "will offer in a year's time a complete cure for cancer." The Jerusalem Post's original article did not include interviews with outside experts and did not challenge Aridor's claims, which stemmed from the unpublished results of a single study involving petri dish cells and mice, WIRED reports.

    According to WIRED, pharmaceutical companies typically submit results from preclinical research involving animals for peer review to help validate their findings and obtain funding for clinical tests in humans. However, AEBi took the unusual step of not releasing its preclinical data. Ilan Morad, AEBi's CEO and founder, told the Times of Israel that the company has not released the data because it does not have the funds needed to publish the findings, WIRED reports.

    The Jerusalem Post's story began gaining traction within hours of being published on Twitter. For example, Glenn Beck, a conservative political commentator, in a tweet sharing the story wrote, "As we have hoped and prayed, and I spoke about happening by 2030: A TOTAL cure for cancer."

    News outlets—including Forbes, Fox News, and the New York Post—also picked up the story, without drawing adequate attention to concerns from outside experts, WIRED reports.

    Why experts don't believe AEBi's claims

    There are a number of reasons why experts are skeptical of the claims reported by the Jerusalem Post. For one, because AEBi's research on mice has not yet been published or subjected to peer review, outside experts cannot evaluate its claims.

    For another, most research findings involving mice do not lead to safe, effective treatments for humans, STAT News reports. The Biotechnology Industry Organization estimates that even among drugs that progress to human trials, just one in 10 ultimately proves safe and effective enough for widespread use.

    And cancer in particular has proven an extraordinarily difficult disease to treat. According to experts, up to 97% of cancer drugs fail, STAT News reports.

    Even if AEBi's approach proves effective, experts doubt any new drug would reach market in just a year, given that it has not yet been tested on humans. According to STAT News, the drugmaker Loxo Oncology received a relatively quick approval for one of its cancer drugs—but it still took the company five years to move it from preclinical trials to approval.

    The progress against cancer is real—but much more modest

    Even as they cast doubt on AEBi's work, experts still acknowledged that other researchers are making progress in the development of cancer treatments. For instance, breakthrough cancer treatments such as Merck's Keytruda have helped prolong the lives of many patients, including former President Jimmy Carter, according to STAT News.

    But STAT News reports that "even in cases like Carter's, this amazing progress comes with complications." STAT News noted that "[n]ot everyone has such an amazing response to these cutting-edge treatments," citing, for example, that "[i]n first-line melanoma, a quarter of patients who get [Keytruda] will still die within a year."

    However, STAT News reports, "In such a hard-to-treat disease, that's a great result" (Herper, STAT News, 2/1; Molteni, WIRED, 1/31).

    What they value: Get to know the 5 types of cancer patients

    Cancer patients have more choices for their care than ever before. To attract patients in this fiercely competitive landscape, you must invest your limited resources in the right services—ones that will earn patients' trust and improve their experience.

    Our infographic is your guide to understanding the five types of patients and what they value in a cancer provider.

    Download the Infographic

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