- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2005

The National Institutes of Health has launched something new called the Cancer Genome Project, aiming to hunt down aberrant genes said to cause cancer.

We need to be suspicious when these grand new projects emerge from the fortress of government medicine in Bethesda, Md: NIH leaders are free to advance their own cause without dissent. On many newsworthy topics, such as war and foreign policy, experts, often with conflicting viewpoints, make their case publicly. But on science, journalists ignore the Watergate-era advice of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein: Don’t print government handouts. On the contrary, regarding medical alarms and promises, journalists print little else.

The new cancer project will cost $100 million initially, and perhaps tenfold that eventually.

The NIH leaders came to the press conference armed with their familiar metaphors of warfare, revolution and new epochs. It is “the beginning of a new era,” NIH Director Elias Zerhouni told reporters. Andrew von Eschenbach, director of the National Cancer Institute, predicted future of cancer research “will look no more like the past than a butterfly resembles a caterpillar.”

Now may be the time to remember President Nixon launched his War on Cancer in 1971, and victory was anticipated by 1976. In 1971, 330,000 Americans died of cancer and the budget of the National Cancer Institute eventually rose by a factor of 10. Dollars were the weapons in that war.

This year, 564,000 Americans will die of cancer. Clifton Leaf, executive editor of Fortune and a cancer survivor, wrote last year that “even as research and treatment efforts have intensified over the past three decades and funding has soared dramatically, the annual death toll has risen 73 percent — over 1 times as fast as the growth of the U.S. population.”

The search for cancer-causing genes has persisted for more than 30 years. It is based on an idea launched by NIH about the same time as the War on Cancer. And it has been the fixed idea of cancer researchers since.

In 1989, Harold Varmus and J. Michael Bishop won the Nobel Prize for the initial discovery of what were alleged to be oncogenes — genes that (when mutated) turn cells cancerous. Dr. Varmus became NIH director under President Clinton and Dr. Bishop the chancellor of the University of California in San Francisco, a leading medical research institution.

The work for which they won the Nobel was done in 1976, but by the time the prize was awarded, the New York Times reported it had led to “the discovery of more than 40 different genes that can cause cancer.” When Michael Bishop wrote “How to Win the Nobel Prize,” in 2003, the repertoire of oncogenes had increased to “100 or more,” and that soon increased to more than 200. Recently on PBS “NewsHour,” Francis Collins of the National Human Genome Research Center said perhaps 300 genes “play a role” in cancer.

This is what the philosophers of science call a “deteriorating paradigm.” Entities are multiplied almost without limit to account for a theory’s continuing failure.

There is one big problem with the gene mutation theory of cancer. The researchers, no matter how eminent or well funded, have yet to show any one of these oncogenes, whether mutated or not, or in any known combination, can transform a normal cell into a cancer cell in the lab, or in test animals.

In a lecture on cancer research last September, Michael Bishop allowed in response to an audience question that he knew of no set of oncogenes that have transformed cells in a Petri dish.

Further, some of the best-known carcinogens, notably asbestos and tar, are not mutagenic. They do not mutate the DNA of the genes. It is likely, therefore, the “role” of mutated genes in cancer is one of association, not causation. Only the most amateurish prosecutor thinks bystanders are culprits.

The new project calls to mind the old definition of fanaticism: If you find yourself going in the wrong direction, redouble your efforts. May I make this prediction? By the time the project has completed its “pilot phase,” in three years, many more oncogenes will be found associated with cancer; perhaps hundreds more. Then perhaps one or two of our reigning experts will dare have the now impermissible thought, that they have been working with the wrong theory of cancer genetics.

Tom Bethell is author of the “Politically Incorrect Guide to Science,” just out from Regnery Publishing.

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