New cancer therapies – Should we wait for peer review?

Having just lost my father to metastatic prostate cancer, I was very intrigued by the potential new cancer therapy that was all over the news just 2 days ago.

If you haven’t caught up with the news yet, the new therapy, using modified white blood cells that were extracted from cancer patients, grown up in the lab, and then put back, showed a massive 90% remission rate — and this was in cancer (leukaemia) patients that had been given just weeks to months to live.

Impressive indeed, this treatment, called immunotherapy, was pioneered by Professor Stanley Riddell, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle. He’s been researching the disease for more than 2 decades and is a well-renowned expert in the field.

So, is this the new reality? Have some of the world’s top scientists cured (one kind of) cancer? Or are we living in some kind of beautiful, hyperbolic reality, and everything will come crashing back down to Earth when the real results are revealed to be not so impressive?

This got me thinking about the ethics of releasing scientific information before. The data has not been reviewed or published, yet it’s already all over every newspaper, internet blog, and TV channel. Even the infamous IFLS had picked up on it, releasing a blog post just hours after the news had leaked.


Should we even be talking about this yet, giving cancer patients hope where it may not exist? Was it right to have even spoken about the data at the conference where the news was leaked? There are certainly many questions to ask, but no answers will be found for a number of years when this research, after repetitions, peer-review, and more proof of concept trials, will be proved or disproved.

A few weeks before my father passed away, he too was given hope that he may be eligible for a new cancer treatment — preliminary trials were being conducted in some eligible individuals. Unfortunately, and disappointingly, after getting his hopes up (and his family’s), he found out that he wouldn’t be eligible after all. He sadly died just a couple of weeks later, after a very sudden decline.

I’m not sure of any of the answers myself. I was happy with the news when I initially heard. “Science really is amazing!” I kept thinking. And I know if my dad was here today he’d be pretty excited about the news too, despite his own terminal diagnosis and ineligibility for certain treatments.

But as I kept reading, finding out that the data had not even been published, hearing the scientists themselves say it was only a “baby step”, and knowing how far away we really were from the treatments being routinely available  I felt… well, uneasy, I suppose, that hopes had been raised before they perhaps were due.

Nevertheless, it’s an exciting time for immunotherapy, and I hope beyond all hopes that this team of scientists continues to forge ahead in leaps and bounds in the fight against cancer.


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