Blogs Expert Journal The Baby and the Bathwater: a response to recent gene-based cancer research news

The Baby and the Bathwater: a response to recent gene-based cancer research news

Written by  Ronald Hempling, M.D.
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Recently, an article which appeared in the New York Times written by a respected medical reporter, Gina Kolata, told a dark tale of less than honorable people producing less than notable science which may, or may not, (the courts will decide) have had an adverse impact upon patient care.

In her piece, Ms. Kolata describes the cancer world as “reeling" as a result of these occurrences.  I am not so sure.  I am sure that there were some Department chairs who lost a night's sleep and grew a few extra gray hairs.  I am sure that there were anxious investors whose bank accounts were marred with red ink.  But as an observer of and participant in the "cancer world" for 40 years, I did not feel the earth move.  I saw some bald heads shake, and heard some tongues click, and heard some deep sighs.  But the Richter Scale did not register a disturbance.

cancer gene researchScience does not, in my experience, work that way.  Instead, the scientific community, of which the cancer world is a part, did what it does on a routine, if not speedy basis.  It exposed the flaws in the research and in the researchers, and extirpated both from the body of workers who daily strive to produce reliable, verifiable work, reviewed by their peers, which can be used by others in the inexorable search for means to improve the human condition.

Every institution regardless of the esteem in which it is held by the public, or perhaps more importantly the esteem in which it holds itself, is to one extent or another flawed.  It is flawed because it is populated by human beings; human beings who are subject to and invested with the same foibles which are found and exposed daily by a 24-hour news cycle and a morbid fascination with human frailty.  It should not be surprising, therefore, that this group of people advantaged itself of a public desperate for relief from a relentless and all too frequently fatal disease.

I am not an apologist.  Those responsible for what can demonstrably be proved as purposeful wrong doing deserve, and will likely receive, punishment which befits their transgressions.

But what of the rest?  Do we now condemn all genomic, genetic, and oncologic research as spurious based on these events?  Do we ignore the legitimate advances that the nearly 100,000 scientific studies which have withstood the scrutiny of scientific review during the last year brought to the translational or clinical arena?  I would caution against so draconian a position.  Because in finality, while imperfect, the system worked. 

cancer gene researchThe bright light of scientific scrutiny exposed both bad science and bad scientists.  If there is any solace to be gained from these sad stories it is just that.  The scientific/medical community takes its charge seriously and moves deliberately to banish from its fraternity those who would knowingly tarnish its reputation for integrity and undermine the public's trust in its motives.

While certainly there is wisdom in viewing the world with a healthy dose of skepticism, I believe it is safe to say that in the world of cancer research the stories of science and scientists gone astray represent the rarest of occurrences.  Both patient and provider can be assured that the overwhelming majority of research produced today is honest, tested and strives to improve the outlook for cancer patients and their loved ones.

Written By

Ronald Hempling, M.D.

Director of Oncology Services at WellSpan Health

WellSpan Health

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