Monday, 2 May 2016

Dodgy cancer research

If you give money to a cancer research charity, how much of it is likely to fund useful and reproducible research? Not much is my conclusion after reading this article in PSI.  

The U.S. government spends $5 billion every year on cancer research; charities and private firms add billions more. Yet the return on this investment—in terms of lives saved, suffering reduced—has long been disappointing: Cancer death rates are drifting downward in the past 20 years, but not as quickly as we’d hoped. Even as the science makes incremental progress, it feels as though we’re going in a circle...

...The deeper problem is that much of cancer research in the lab—maybe even most of it—simply can’t be trusted. The data are corrupt. The findings are unstable. The science doesn’t work.

To anyone with a scientific background the problem of irreproducible research is entirely believable. Laboratory research can be a messy business where every detail is not recorded and even the people may change over time.

...In other words, we face a replication crisis in the field of biomedicine, not unlike the one we’ve seen in psychology but with far more dire implications. Sloppy data analysis, contaminated lab materials, and poor experimental design all contribute to the problem...

...Begley blames these failures on some systematic problems in the literature, not just in cancer research but all of biomedicine. He says that preclinical work—the basic science often done by government-funded, academic scientists—tends to be quite slipshod. Investigators fail to use controls; or they don’t blind themselves to study groups; or they selectively report their data; or they skip important steps, such as testing their reagents.

The whole article is worth a read even if you don't have a scientific background. Scientific research can be so complex that the person who records absolutely everything is the exception rather than the rule. Yet shoddy and irreproducible research still has to be paid for. 


Sackerson said...

If science has lost its rigour, we haven't got much else to rely on.

Anonymous said...

What should we spend money on? Most things we buy or do are utterly useless in the grand scheme - advertising, media, sport, government reports. But it all helps make the world go round - houses and cars get bought, families get brought up decently. So a few billions on cancer research seems very small beer.

So what if there is some ropey science, that there is mutual back scratching and something approaching corruption in academe. Do we really think any field of human endeavour is in some sense 'pure and virtuous'. Even making cars and planes is infested with pointless people once you get beyond the welders and riveters. Sadly 99% of everything is crap, to be even a small contributor to the 1% is a privilege.

James Higham said...

If govt commissions a study, they want certain conclusions to meet with their mindset and agenda.

Derek said...

Cancer research is worth US$100B per year. This is a figure I have read elsewhere:
The financial beneficiaries are the big pharmaceutical companies. What's the chance of natural products being allowed a look-in if such were to be shown to equal or increase the successful fight against cancer? Nil. There's no money outside of drug manufacture for the drug manufacturers. The Gerson Clinic has been outlawed in the US and has to practice over the border in Mexico, and their treatment and success rate outperforms the scientifically accepted methods. Cancer research institutions refuse to accept natural substances as being contributory to any reduction of cancer in cancer patients:
All will claim that there is no scientific evidence to show natural products can alleviate cancer, reduce it in any beneficial way, and will promote death as one side effect of using natural products. People also die from chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery. People can also die from imbibing too much clean water.

It's a bucket of worms controlled by big finance and big brother governments.

Demetrius said...

The human body is a chemically complicated bag of tricks. So is the world outside it. And the human body needs constant interaction with this to feed and survive. In a sense a lot of science has essentially been looking at simple answers and too often for single causes. So quite how you can come up with simple cures is far from easy and may not be possible in some cases. But the scientists have to go where the money and jobs are. Time for a nap.

A K Haart said...

Sackers - what we already have is enough in a philosophical sense, but there are obvious issues with some sciences. Perhaps we see it more clearly than we used to.

James - and what is wanted is clear enough even if not laid out explicitly.

Roger - I agree, much of what we are uncovering was bound to be there even though interested parties prefer to keep the mystique going. As mystique fades the landscape becomes bleaker but more accurate.

Derek - natural products seem to be explored assiduously, but can't be patented so no doubt there is a preference for chemically modified versions which can. I don't know much about alternative therapies, but what if the official therapy doesn't work anyway?

Demetrius - I have a feeling that there is a problem still to be accepted with all this, a problem of complexity where uniform inputs and outputs don't work and never will

Derek said...

If the official therapies work, they work in the minority of cases. The majority go into remission, only to have the disease return later - if indeed it works at all. As the herbalists of yore were persecuted for witchcraft, so alternative medicines are treated as "quackery", leaving the official methods to continue as the accepted 'norm'. More money that way, leaving the research industries and drug companies turnover safe.
55mins. It gets 'taken down' periodically. Search for 'A World Without Cancer' by G Edward Griffin.