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Miracle-cure Hype Fuels the Modern Quest for Immortality

Published: 05th June 2015 08:46 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th June 2015 08:46 AM   |  A+A-

Every year in May nearly 40,000 oncologists flock to Chicago for the world's biggest cancer jamboree - ASCO - the American Society of Clinical Oncology. I've gone intermittently over the past 35 years as an NHS consultant. While it's on, the the global media is awash with stories of miracle cancer drugs. Positive stories are carefully placed by smart marketing execs on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry. It all sounds so convincing.

But the reality is that this is a sophisticated conspiracy to hype products being sold to bigger companies by small start-ups, to get more investment for the industry from the City or Wall Street, or just to ramp up share prices and make short-term gains.

One such announcement went out at the beginning of the week for a new immunotherapy product. It claimed "Terminally ill cancer patients have been 'effectively cured' by a game-changing new class of drugs". This was for a type of therapy called a checkpoint inhibitor: the drug removes the brakes from the immune system allowing it to recognise and destroy cancer cells. But the key study only shows a three-month prolongation of survival, compared to chemotherapy alone. And the cost is over pounds 100,000 a patient. If all cancer patients were given it, that would consume more than the entire current NHS budget.

But just imagine someone you love has been receiving cancer treatment for the past two years. The disease has spread relentlessly and they've been told that nothing more can be done; they've suffered endless hospital visits for chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Then they open the paper and see this report. How do you think they feel when they get hold of their oncologist, who tries to let them down gently? No cancer specialist would make such claims: we're far too cautious and don't want to raise false hope. In any case it's just not feasible for terminal patients to be cured - that's the definition of terminal.

Of course, it's wrong to remove hope. And I've seen some very surprising things happen in my career. A few memorable patients have lived for over 25 years with clear evidence of cancer spread. But hype out of all proportion to reality is unjustified. It fuels the modern quest for immortality - an unachievable holy grail. That was further perpetuated yesterday after two new sudies were presented at Chicago: these claimed that statins, the cure-all wonder-drug, can cut your risk of dying from cancer by up to 50 per cent.

Western society has a taboo about death not found in many Asian cultures where it is part of a natural continuum. The concept that there will be the discovery of a miraculous breakthrough for cancer or a way of preventing it is fuelled by hype from the drug industry - whether that's pushing new super-expensive treatments, or punting good old statins as being the miracle cure.

But while statins may prolong life, any drug is only one part of cancer care. Novel surgical techniques, precision radiotherapy with pin head accuracy and good psychological care bolstered by complementary medicine are all part of the total package we need to offer. For the real future is personalised cancer care: taking into account the individual's disease and their own circumstances.

However, the extent to which treatment can be tailored to an individual has in the past been limited by crude descriptions of their disease and generic treatment options. Advances in genomics and drug responsiveness are leading to more detailed descriptions of a patient's cancer and better targeted treatments, which offer significant advantages over blunderbuss chemotherapies. Personalised medicine is the real future for all our patients. Forget the drug hype - this is where the real hope lies.

 

Karol Sikora is a cancer specialist and Dean of the new medical school at the University of Buckingham



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