Duesberg on cancer, deconstructed

A few readers have asked me what I thought about HIV “dissident” Peter Duesberg’s recent article in Scientific American, entitled Chromosomal Chaos and Cancer. Duesberg’s cancer ideas–and his claim of novelty for researching how chromosomal abnormalities, rather than more simpler gene mutations, cause cancer–are something I wanted to write about months ago, after I came across an interesting reference in this post over at Panda’s Thumb, where it was noted that “…in certain kinds of cancer, chromosomal instability prevents tumourogenesis, the exact opposite of what Wells [and Duesberg--TS] predicted.”

However, I simply haven’t had a lot of time to delve into this issue, since while I do actually have some training in the molecular pathogenesis of cancer, it’s not an area where I routinely keep up with the literature. However, the recent article also intrigued Orac, who, for those unfamiliar, is a cancer surgeon and carries out research into the molecular biology of cancer. He has a post up on the article today, and while he gets much more deeply into it, his general conclusion is in agreement with my first impression. A few money quotes:

The problem is, Duesberg’s thinking is black-and-white, all-or-nothing. He can’t seem to fathom the concept that both aneuploidy and genetic mutations might feed upon each other. In addition, he also almost totally neglects other evidence implicating other causes or important factors in the progression of cancer, such as cancer stem cells, tumor angiogenesis, or even the metabolic hypothesis ( i.e., the Warburg effect), which, like the chromosomal hypothesis, is also enjoying a resurgence. Cancer is a complex set of diseases, likely with multiple causes contributing to the development of different cancers in different proportions, which is why my skeptical antennae start twitching whenever I hear someone like Duesberg (or anyone else, for that matter) postulate in essence a single cause for all cancer.

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However, contrary to how Duesberg’s sycophants like to portray the chromosomal hypothesis of cancer as an epic battle that’s all about Duesberg, who is portrayed as the lone voice arguing for the hypothesis that aneuploidy is the cause of cancer, in reality it’s nothing more than yet another scientific controversy that is, fortunately, no more nasty than a lot of other controversies in science, such as, for example, the hypothesis that changes in cell metabolism are the cause of, not a consequence of, carcinogenesis. It’s also nowhere near as clear as Duesberg claims whether aneuploidy is a cause or a consequence of carcinogenesis.

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What really irks me about Duesberg with respect to his ideas about cancer is that he may be on to something, but he can’t seem to stop himself from the same black-and-white, either-or thinking that apparently led him down the road of HIV crankery, nor can he seem to resist massively overselling his hypothesis as the be-all and end-all hypothesis to explain cancer initiation and progression.

I think the chromosomal hypothesis of cancer is intriguing, but it’s not an idea that’s original to Duesberg, nor has he been leading the field in the past decade or so as far as this research goes. And as Orac notes, I think he’s way over-selling his ideas as the be-all and end-all of carcinogenesis, which leaves me more distasteful of this article than I would be had it been written by someone, perhaps, a little more modest, for lack of a better word. All in all, like Duesberg’s long-discredited hypothesis on the etiology of AIDS, time and additional research will show if these ideas significantly advance the field or not.

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