The media often get their reporting of cancer research wrongJudy Schmidt

‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ teaches us the consequences of proclaiming falsehoods, a universal lesson taught to children around the world. It tells us of the numbing effect of a boy’s repeated baseless cries for help, eventually leading to his demise.

Last week I read a science article on the BBC. It told me of the “game-changer” that was immunotherapy. This new form of treatment engages our own immune system in the war against The Big C – a phenomenon that was only discovered in 2003 and has since been fast-tracked to the forefront of cancer therapeutics. Now, as one of the flagships of contemporary cancer therapy, immunotherapy has been grabbing the headlines, which are careful to float only similes of the word ‘cure’ – effectively teasing at the heartstrings of members of the public affected by this disease.

A quick search of ‘cancer cures’ on the BBC website draws up hits dating back to 1998, with more careless sensationalist titles such as “Cancer ‘cure’ breakthrough” and “‘Miracle’ cancer cure to be tested”. In the former of these articles – based on a treatment found to be successful in mice – the professor, when questioned, even stated that “this does not necessarily mean that we would be able to cure people, but it does make it worth exploring this further”. Yet the headline was still run – one which yelps for attention. The source of the problem here may seem obvious: blame the lies on journalists looking for a scoop. However, ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ may have an accomplice…

In 2011, a comment article was published in the scientific journal Nature, one of the standard-bearers of modern scientific publishing. It described efforts by the author to replicate several ‘landmark papers’ in cancer research. These selected papers were all preclinical (experiments carried out in mice and other model organisms). Over a 10-year period, the author found that he was able to replicate findings in only six papers out of a total of 53 – an embarrassing 11 per cent success rate. These results suggest either the original findings were false or, more likely, the data presented were carefully selective, and the experiments carelessly designed.

Scientists have begun to identify and treat the areas which contribute to this crisis. One element is the culture of the peer-review publishing system which all present-day science relies on. Explaining and fully deciphering this hot-button issue would require an entirely new article. So for now, know that whether a science article is published often relies on how much of a big dog you are, how flashy the finding is and how picture-perfect the ‘story’. These factors all feed into a system which leads to publications which over-simplify the presented data.

As I lambaste the entire scientific community and my future employers, it is important to know that the people behind these landmark pieces of research rarely have the intent to deceive. As the author of the Nature comment article put it: “these investigators were all competent, well-meaning scientists who truly wanted to make advances in cancer research.”

So why should we care that both academic science and popular journalism are inadvertently crying wolf to the public?

When I interviewed for a PhD at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, my interviewer – on the topic of science and the news – told me that he understood why I wanted to write about science. He told me of how, after news headlines proclaiming a cure or breakthrough, his phone would light up. Concerned wives, husbands, brothers, sisters and friends of people affected by cancer ask for any information to ease their on-going limbo-like state of mind.

These are the villagers, who come at the call of the boy, only to be left with disappointment. Emotional cycles of hope to heartache are the result, further fuelling the growing resentment and disillusion towards the scientific establishment.

Unlike the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’, we instead have a system that is unintentionally spreading misinformation. The writers taking part remove the complexities and use headlines that hint at a successful therapy for loved ones. These have contributed to the presence of dangerous black-market ‘cures’ being heavily sought-after, which have even included blended mixtures of olive leaves and water.

More worryingly, a recent Radio 5 Live investigation discovered a black market for an injectable blood product, GcMAF, in the UK, which was being sold by a health food shop. It was sold as a cancer cure – an unlicensed product with a dubious scientific background. The scientific papers supporting it have since been retracted.

This is the new grey area for therapies: no longer is it the ridiculously homeopathic or the infantile olive leaves and water. It is an area of weak and sometimes falsified data supporting a treatment which has then snaked its way past regulations and into the modern pharmaceutical realm. It survives due to the desperation the public has for a standard and all-encompassing cancer treatment, after being told over and over again of the breakthroughs which are being carried out.

In fitting with the analogy of the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’, the bombardment of cancer breakthroughs hides the fact that immunotherapy really does seem to be a big step forward. It downright cures late stages of the deadliest type of skin cancer – melanomas. But if one reads this without exercising caution, one could easily be misled. We are talking about only one type of cancer and the treatment is not 100 per cent successful in all patients.

So maybe change has to occur in all of us. We need to lower our expectations and embrace the complexity of cancer. The fact is, if you put 10 cancer researchers into a room and ask them ‘what’s the cure?’, you will get 10 different answers, with half of them saying it’s impossible