Implausible Cause

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers deconstructs the hypothesis of two physicists who show an undue enthusiasm for biology. They claim cancer is caused by cells regressing from their modern, multicellular functionality to a “proto-metazoan” lifestyle of largely uncoordinated growth. Myers says their is no plausible avenue for such atavism, writing “you can’t take one of your cells, switch off a few genes, and set it free in the ocean to swim off and follow its primitive lifestyle.” Considering the factors that really contribute to cancer, Myers concludes “scientists shouldn’t be looking for optimism, they should be searching for the truth, which is sometimes going to be grim.” Meanwhile, on The Pump Handle, Sara Gorman recapitulates Sir Austin Bradford Hill’s criteria for determining disease causality, which are “still widely accepted in epidemiological research and have even spread beyond the scientific community.”


Pursuing Woo in Africa

Alexander Pope wrote “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” but cancer isn’t far behind.  Yet when hope springs, it can lead the sick to the unproven, to more dire disease, and death.  On Respectful Insolence, Orac tells the stories of two women—one Kenyan, one American—who avoided modern treatment for their breast cancers.  Orac writes, “Neglected tumors like this often bleed or rot—or both. It’s truly horrible to behold, and at this point there is nothing a surgeon can do except to recommend local wound care and hope that the chemotherapy works.”  Sometimes it’s not too late.  And sometimes even the earliest cancer is a foregone conclusion.  But in between, making an informed decision can save your life.  Meanwhile, on ERV, Abbie Smith writes that Gambian president Yahya Jammeh claims to have cured sixty-eight patients of HIV and AIDS with his “secret pot of herbs.”  Jammeh promises to integrate natural “medicine” into all the nation’s hospitals.

Reassessing Chronic Illness

On The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski surveys a new report on chronic illness released by the Institute of Medicine. Borkowski writes, “diabetes and heart disease are what leap to my mind—in part because they’re so tied to the lifestyle factors of smoking, inadequate exercise, and poor nutrition, and in part because they cost our health system so much money.” But other physical (and mental) afflictions beleaguer tens of millions of Americans (116 million of which, for example, suffer from chronic pain). In total, the IoM report “highlights nine ‘clinical clusters’ that together ‘encompass and flesh out the range of key issues that affect the quality of life of patients with the full spectrum of chronic illnesses,'” and Borkowski summarizes each of them. She also notes that “more than one-fourth of the US population has two or more chronic conditions and the prevalence of multiple chronic conditions increases with age.” Managing and perhaps someday preventing chronic illness will make for a happier future, but each disease presents its own complex dynamics. On ERV, Abbie Smith explains that cancer can develop resistance to treatment just like bacteria and viruses do. She writes, “Because of the genomic diversity of the population of tumor/bacteria/virus, when you apply the treatment, there is a small sub-population that is resistant to the treatment.”

No Cure for Cancer

On The USA Science and Engineering Festival, Joe Schwarcz writes that in the media’s “drive to capture public attention, science sometimes takes a back seat.” He offers an accurate headline for one study: “Large daily dose of blueberry powder may reduce the growth of a rare type of artificially induced breast cancer in a special variety of immune suppressed mouse.” But only claims made relevant to the individual will sell newspapers—not to mention cereals and snack bars cooked up with the latest isolate. More than money, exaggerated headlines can cost us a false sense of hope. But we should still eat our fruits and vegetables. Orac examines the credulity of cure-seekers on Respectful Insolence, saying “we humans like control”—and when disease takes away our sense of control, “we instinctively seek ways of being more in control, or at least of feeling as though we are in control.” This may be one reason for the enduring appeal of quackery—it offers simple explanations and certain outcomes that an honest oncologist just can’t provide. On Pharyngula, PZ Myers dismisses the claim that woo killed Steve Jobs. PZ writes, “an early flirtation with ‘alternative’ medicine might have contributed somewhat to lowering the odds of survival, but that what killed him is cancer. And cancer is a bastard.”