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There’s no conspiracy – sometimes it just doesn’t work

Category: Science blog July 6, 2011 Kat Arney 8 comments

"Miracle cures" usually do more harm than good

At Cancer Research UK, we’re often asked about alleged “miracle cures” for cancer, usually based on claims made on the internet. There’s an impressive list of these collected on the Quackwatch website (here and here), ranging from the slightly wacky to the downright dangerous.

In virtually all cases, when researchers have rigorously tested these treatments, they don’t work. But the rumours persist, fuelling the belief that there is a “conspiracy” preventing cancer patients from getting effective treatments.

Not only is this simply not true – just because something doesn’t actually work, it doesn’t mean there’s a conspiracy against it – it’s harmful to cancer patients. And, as we’ve found out whilst digging through our archives, it’s also not a new idea.

Here’s an example from 1907, from the Annual Report of Cancer Research UK’s precursor, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund:

“Serious attention has been given to the additional alleged cancer cures which have been brought to our notice during the past year. Unfortunately it is impossible to assign a curative value to any of them.”

The report goes on to describe an “alleged remedy” trypsin, which through rigorous lab research, is shown to be “incapable of influencing the progressive growth of tumours”. In other words, despite popular claims to the contrary at the time, it simply didn’t work.

History repeating

Although the internet didn’t exist at the turn of the 20th century, the mass media still had a major role in fuelling claims about cancer cures, as highlighted in a 1904 paper in the British Medical Journal written by D’Arcy Power entitled “Notes on an ineffectual treatment of cancer”.  Power notes:

“Dr. Harold Johnson’s account of Dr. Otto Schmidt’s work appeared in the Lancet for November 14th, 1903, p. 1374, under the title ‘Dr. Otto Schmidt’s Specific Treatment of Cancer’ and his paper gained a somewhat wider circulation than was intended, as a long abstract appeared in the Daily Mail.”

Sound familiar?

In order to quell some of the wilder rumours, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund’s scientists analysed a number of the “cancer cures” that were being peddled at the time, publishing their findings in the British Medical Journal in 1906:

“A very slight acquaintance with the advertisements of quack medicines which are so abundant in newspapers and periodicals is enough to show that a knowledge of the causes of the diseases for which a cure is promised is in no wise necessary for the composition of either the medicine or the advertisement; in fact, it is impossible to believe that the extravagant claims and absurd statements made could be put forward by persons having a knowledge of the subject.

It is no matter for surprise, therefore, that in the case of the least understood and least successfully combated of diseases many proprietary “remedies” are put forward.”

The article then goes on to describe the analysis of one such ‘remedy’ in demand at the time, which turns out to be nothing more that diluted alcohol. The writers add:

“The cost of the ‘medicine’ we are now dealing with is of course considerably greater than the cost of plain water, but this fact will be but small consolation to the victim who derives as little benefit from the one as the other.”

Their words still resonate more than a hundred years later, given the huge number of “miracle cures” that spring up on the web, promising much but delivering nothing but shattered hopes and empty wallets.

Cancer, credulity and quackery

One hundred years ago, there were very few effective treatments for cancer, save for the surgeon’s scalpel. As a result, homespun cancer cures thrived, with all manner of pills and potions being peddled in newspapers and magazines.

In 1911, Ernest Bashford, director of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund’s research lab, published a hefty paper in the British Medical Journal, entitled “Cancer, credulity and quackery”.

It’s available as a freely downloadable pdf, and is well worth a read, if only to compare how much progress has been made in treating cancer through modern medicine since that time and how little the claims and methods of quacks have changed.

In particular, Bashford highlights the reluctance of the inventors of these “cures” to submit their creations to rigorous scientific examination, and attempts to blind the public with pseudoscientific jargon. Another recurring theme is the refusal to believe that there is nothing more the medical profession can do to help a person with inoperable cancer, and that they must be ‘hiding’ the cure.

He cites the example of “The Evolution of the Cancer Cell” – a booklet produced by a Dr Robert Bell who claimed to be able to cure the disease. Bashford writes:

“The pages from which I quote contain a jumble of words – irrelevant chatter, as it seems to me – in which milk, nuclein, the thyroid gland, pork, butcher’s meat, constipation, menstruation, platform experience and contaminated blood jostle one another without reason; with the throwing-in of a biblical quotation and repeated dwelling upon the natural dread of the knife, and appeal to all human frailties is completed.”

Bashford also discusses the relatively poor understanding of cancer at the time, which made it difficult to diagnose the disease correctly, providing an environment for quackery to flourish.

Today we have an intimate knowledge of cancer and sophisticated diagnostic techniques, from molecular tests to CT scans. But a century ago, cancer diagnosis was much more hit and miss. Data from the early 1900s show that up to 10 per cent of cancers were misdiagnosed (i.e. they weren’t actually cancer). According to Bashford:

“…thus is provided an annual crop of cases of reputed cancer more than adequate to account for all the “cures” claimed by all the quacks and cancer curers on the basis of the diagnoses of “inoperable cancer” by eminent surgeons or by hospital authorities.”

Against this backdrop of ignorance and fear – and a medical profession just starting to find its feet – fake “cures” flourished. It’s easy to see how this culture has persisted through the years, despite the measurable progress in treating cancer by conventional medicine.

Although we still have a long way to go before we’ve beaten this terrible disease, survival rates are rising year on year, and many thousands of children and adults are alive today thanks to advances in surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

There is no conspiracy

Although the 1939 Cancer Act was brought in to try to stop the advertisement of fraudulent cancer cures to the general public in the UK, it has little jurisdiction in today’s international online world, where thousands of websites peddling quack cures are available at the click of a button.

It doesn’t matter how many unverified anecdotes pop up in the press or on the internet – if a treatment doesn’t hold up when subjected to rigorous scientific investigation, it doesn’t mean there’s a “conspiracy” to stop it. It means it doesn’t work.

For more than a century, scientists around the world have tried, tested and tweaked hundreds of ways to treat cancer. Some of them have worked – many more haven’t.

But scientists don’t claim that there’s a conspiracy to suppress their “miracle cure” when their investigations show that something doesn’t work to treat cancer. Instead, they apply the scientific method as it should be done – forming an idea, rigorously testing it, and seeing if it holds up.

If it works, then patients will benefit, as they do from the hundreds of effective treatments that have led to survival from cancer doubling over the past 30 years.  If it doesn’t work, it means that their idea was wrong and it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Sometimes things just don’t work. Bright ideas can turn out to be wrong, or researchers find out that things are rather more complicated than they first anticipated.

To suggest that there is a conspiracy aimed at depriving cancer sufferers of effective treatments is not only absurd, it’s offensive to the global community of dedicated scientists, to the staff and supporters of cancer research organisations such as Cancer Research UK, and – most importantly – to cancer patients and their loved ones.

We have all lost friends and family to cancer. And our loss fuels our passion to beat this disease by finding out what really works, through scientific research.

Kat

References:

Bashford EF (1911). CANCER, CREDULITY, AND QUACKERY. British medical journal, 1 (2630), 1221-30 PMID: 20765638

Imperial Cancer Research Fund (1907). IMPERIAL CANCER RESEARCH FUND. British medical journal, 2 (2427), 26-9 PMID: 20763346

Power D (1904). Notes on an Ineffectual Treatment of Cancer: Being a Record of Three Cases Injected with Dr. Otto Schmidt’s Serum. British medical journal, 1 (2249), 299-302 PMID: 20761353

No authors listed (1906). THE COMPOSITION OF SOME CANCER “REMEDIES.”. British medical journal, 1 (2369) PMID: 20762692