How scientific research spent 41 years running down a blind alley to find a cure.
Remember way back when? Was it 1972? President Richard Nixon declared his famous “War on cancer.” And why not? President John F. Kennedy had made a similar, or so it seemed, declaration about landing men on the moon. And Kennedy’s grand pronouncement did actually come true.
So why not conquer cancer if we can conquer outer space? It all seemed so logical, so noble, so necessary. Cancer was the unseen enemy from within, killing more Americans than all previous wars combined. Why not go after it with all our technical and intellectual might, and get rid of it once and for all?
Now think about it: 1972. That’s 41 years!! And where are we now, in 2013? Not any nearer to a medical cure than we were back then. Hard to believe isn’t it? Where did we go wrong? How did modern science fail us? What lessons are there to be learned from this failure? What does the future really hold?
The answers to these provocative questions are vital. For they illuminate how dogma, even in science, can take society down a path of self-deception and lost opportunity. Such has happened repeatedly throughout the history of mankind, but it is sobering to realize that it still happens to this day.
Let’s begin by taking a step back to look at some essential features of modern science itself. The first half of 20th century science focused on physics, and the two huge paradigm shifts brought about first by Einstein and then again by quantum mechanics. The central dogma of the most fundamental and established of all sciences, physics, was thereby demolished. This revolution in physics stands even today as a dramatic illustration of the fallacy of sacrosanct dogma in the world of science.
Nevertheless, the irresistible urge to construct more scientific dogma returned with a vengeance in the middle of the twentieth century, following the famous discovery of the DNA double helix in 1954. A new era in science, “the molecular logic of the living state,” was soon to be born…
Now, back to the war on cancer. In 1972, our understanding of the workings of a living cell were crude at best. But a central paradigm was emerging out of what little we did know: the cell was imagined to be a “chemical machine” that runs off of the “software program” encoded in the DNA. Cellular operations are therein determined, or so the paradigm predicted. Thus if cancer was described as aberrant cellular activity, then the ultimate “answer to cancer” must lie in some programming problem within the DNA itself. From this point of departure modern cancer research has relentlessly proceeded, however erroneously.
Cancer is a disease of unregulated, chaotic cell growth. And the most fundamental question has always been, “why do cancer cells behave this way?” The answer, according to the reigning paradigm, has been that cell growth has been abnormally “turned on.” That is, otherwise normal cells have had some portion of the DNA activated to promote growth, growth that is unregulated because the normal behavior of the cell should be in a mature state of nonproliferation.
But the truth is actually something different altogether. Cancer does not actually start with the DNA, as the establishment paradigm falsely asserts. Cancer, it turns out, is due to something far less elegant. Over the past 10-15 years or so, recognition of something termed apoptosis, or “programmed cell death,” has emerged. And what is apoptosis? A simple evolutionary imperative: for multicellular organisms to survive, there has to be a means by which dysfunctional cells remove themselves harmlessly from the host.
This they do constantly as cells get old and/or nonoperational. Such cells “commit suicide” by activating a series of internal chemical reactions leading to cell dissolution. But like all cellular operations, the process is only 99.9999% effective. When even one cell fails to self-destruct, it may wander off into a different pathway. Unable to function correctly and likewise unable to self-destruct, the hampered cell may sometimes retain the capacity to reproduce. And the result may be an entire clone of its dysfunctional, aberrant progeny. And there is an old name for such inappropriate growth and proliferation: cancer.
You might think that it would be simple enough for academic medicine to simply acknowledge this new discovery and get on with appropriate research aimed at augmenting the apoptotic pathway of cancer cells, rather than doggedly sticking to the original, failed paradigm of DNA-directed abnormal cell growth. So why don’t they?
The dominant reason for this failure, I believe, is embedded in the inherent nature of scientific dogma. It took two decades for Einstein’s theory of relativity to be accepted. It took two decades for Hubble’s Big Bang theory to gain widespread acceptance. Reigning dogma in science does not topple as easily as you might think. And the reigning dogma in the life sciences is that DNA is the center of the cellular biological universe, whence forth all else must derive.
Foundations, entire faculties and institutions have been built on this premise, not to mention the pharmaceutical industry. And all those who sit atop the autocracy which is academic science and Big Pharma are not about to abdicate what they spent lifetimes and careers and billions upon billions of dollars constructing.
Few laypersons realize that science is not the apolitical, noble quest for pure truth that many of us romanticize it to be. Science is the endeavor of scientists, human beings who are not entirely immune to the corrupting influence of fame and fortune. As such, mistakes get made along the way, mistakes that may lie uncorrected for decades, if not longer.
So where does that leave us? Caught in the middle of a rather immense and inescapable mine field, something which is at least misguided and at worst hideously corrupted. But every revolution must start with a seminal voice of protest. From the trenches of the cancer clinic, from one who has been there for 30 years, let it start here…
Dr. Stephen J. Iacoboni, MD, is a dedicated doctor, an award-winning researcher, and an outdoorsman who finds solace and rejuvenation in nature. He is a father of grown sons, an oncologist who has fought the good fight beside his patients for three decades, and an author who has chronicled the spiritual journey on which his career has taken him in his book, The Undying Soul: A Cancer Doctor’s Discovery, a book that offers a unique and unparalleled view of Cancer. For more articles and information from Dr. Iacoboni, visit: