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Mole rats are newsworthy. They look weird. They live in colonies like ants. And they don’t seem to get cancer. That’s why we’ve written before about interesting laboratory research into their potential cancer-busting properties.

But we think some of today’s headlines about research on mole rats have gone too far and give a false impression of a non-existent “breakthrough” towards a cancer “cure”.

First, a general point: despite what countless headlines would have us believe, science and medicine rarely progress though such dramatic ‘breakthroughs’, but rather through the steady, persistent drip-drip of good quality research.

Like water on a stone, this continuous flow of research slowly washes away the mystery, and uncovers new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat disease.

Early lab research

More specifically, as far as we can tell, today’s headlines refer to research that was made public in August last year by scientists in Israel (or perhaps to further unpublished work – we can’t tell).

It’s fascinating stuff, but it certainly doesn’t justify claims that “a cure for ALL [emphasis by the Express] cancers is on the way”.

The work is all lab-based and shows mole rats are resistant to things that would normally cause cancer in mice and other rodents. It also shows human cancer cells grown in the lab alongside mole rat cells – or treated with extracts from the cells – are killed off.

That’s all great. But the research is still very far from being developed into a treatment for people, let alone a cure for all cancers.

Overblown headlines

We love to see interesting research being discussed in the media. And lots of the lab work on blind mole rats and naked mole rats is genuinely intriguing.

But we’re concerned such overblown headlines could give cancer patients false hope of a wonder treatment that’s just around the corner.

Or – equally damaging – such recurrent headlines could have the opposite effect of undermining public’s confidence in cancer research. By creating the impression of breakthroughs that then don’t quickly materialise into cures, such stories create an impression that research isn’t working.

The fact of the matter is that cancer research is full of promising leads that end up at a dead end. That’s science. But along the way we learn new things, and build our knowledge of cancer.

And, slowly but surely, we make progress. It’s thanks to research that cancer survival rates have doubled over the past 40 years.

We don’t yet know where this research could lead – but we do know it’s far too early to start talking about cures.

Blind mole rat image from Wikimedia commons

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Comments

jay June 15, 2014

People need too stop depending on the media for a cure and scientists… this planet holds a cure for everything.. many things have known too cure cancer.. hemp is a good one.. many things provent too… and look at teslar.. his cure was soon well hidden.. it cured 16 people and you nevver heard of the guy again… Cancer is a billion dollar industry and they will not give us the cure.. wake the hell up people…

Sarmad March 17, 2014

What if light has something to do with Cancer? Maybe it feeds cancer… Research has shown that the incidence of cancer is low in blind people.

Annette Culley February 28, 2014

I have long had an interest in Thomas Kuhn’s theory of how science develops as espoused in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions where he espouses his paradigm theory so i guess that a breakthrough could be a proposition. Here in Australia I have noticed that high profile women, even the very young, seem often develop breast cancer. The other interesting thing is that people with thyroid antibodies, Hashimoto’s disease produce hyaluronin which is responsible for the facial swelling that these diseases produce. Maybe some research into why some people are resistant to cancer would be interesting. These are just a few thoughts.

Ben shrimpton January 30, 2014

what do you think of the john kanzius foundation?

Solidus Aurelius` January 27, 2014

It is always “just reasearch”. Why is it that the research is always presented in this optimistic light, then at the very end of an article they quickly quip that it will be a generation before any of the reasearch means more than the words used to describe it? I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but why do all of these types of programs and developments usually disappear like grains of sand dropped in the Sahara?

katie January 17, 2014

Naked mole rats are the best.

Fanakapan January 16, 2014

Par for the course when it comes to the Express :)

But in view of the depth of knowledge, although far from complete, that we now have regarding the various proteins and their mechanisms within the Cell, it seems likely that somebody must have investigated the Mole Rats ability to be immune from Cancer at a cellular level ? Methinks this Israeli team needs to come up with something rather more concrete than suggested by their efforts so far.

Frankly, the level of knowledge now available should be speeding up the research effort to the point where the ‘Drip Drip’ becomes more akin to a hosepipe ? It would be interesting to know the full extent of the World research effort at this time, I suspect we might be disappointed in its extent :(

Oliver Childs January 16, 2014

Hi Ruth. As we say in the post, we’re not criticising the research, but thought some of the headlines were misleading, so wanted to redress the balance a little. It’s far too early to talk about cures when this is all lab-based research. And we know from, for instance, the calls our nurses team sometimes receive when such ‘breakthrough cure’ headlines appear that they can cause false hope, which can be distressing for some patients.

We didn’t write about the research at the time it was published because we have no problem with the research. But a front page of a national newspaper usually means lots of people are likely to be interested in finding out more, and we wanted to provide a balanced piece for them.

Ruth Stavric January 16, 2014

Responding to Daily Mail headlines seems a weird way to spend CRUK funders’ money. This research was originally published in Science Journals way back in July 2013 – with no reponse from CRUK then. Odd.