Respectful Insolence

I came across an interesting tidbit about dichloroacetate (DCA), the compound that the media and all too many bloggers are touting as some sort of cheap “cure” for cancer whose development is being ignored or suppressed by big pharma because it wouldn’t be profitable enough. I poured a bit of cold water on all of them yesterday, because most of their comments were based on false hope, given how few drugs that show promise in cell culture and animals actually pan out in human trials, and ignorance of how clinical trials for new cancer drugs work.

This particular tidbit is posted on the University of Alberta website, where the university is asking for donations to help fund the clinical trial that needs to be done to determine whether DCA is effective in humans or another dead end.

I have no objections to funding this clinical trial either all or in part by donations, although the implication that this trial depends on those donations is probably not true. After all, many charitable foundations hand out grants to fund biomedical research of all sorts, including even clinical trials, and they sometimes ask for donations to be targeted to to certain specific research projects. Given that the funding climate right now for research is pretty bad, it’s not unreasonable to try to extract funds from other sources, including donations, to take up some of the slack, and certainly DCA seems promising enough to warrant a fast track into clinical trials in humans.

Even so, this sort of blatant promotion (particularly the videos, in which reporters play up the big bad pharmaceutical company angle) does bother me a bit. The reason is that it places even more of a premium than I’m totally comfortable with on an investigator’s media savvy and skill at self-promotion over science and the investigator’s ability to use evidence and scientific arguments to sell his or her research than is already the case. If scientists start making a habit of bypassing peer-reviewed sources of funding to go straight to the public, whether out of desperation because traditional sources of funds have dried up or because it becomes perceived that this will get them more money, then mainly sexy, easy-to-explain science will attract donations. (Note the heavy use of TV-friendly computer images of shrunken tumors in the videos I referenced.) Worse, there is the potential for a lot of dubious science that would normally otherwise wither away to attract funds and take on another life just because the investigator doing the science knows how to play the media.

ADDENDUM: Walnut has posted his critique on Daily Kos as well.

All Orac posts on DCA:

  1. In which my words will be misinterpreted as “proof” that I am a “pharma shill”
  2. Will donations fund dichloroacetate (DCA) clinical trials?
  3. Too fast to label others as “conspiracy-mongers”?
  4. Dichloroacetate: One more time…
  5. Laying the cluestick on DaveScot over dichloroacetate (DCA) and cancer
  6. A couple of more cluesticks on dichloroacetate (DCA) and cancer
  7. Where to buy dichloroacetate (DCA)? Dichloroacetate suppliers, even?
  8. An uninformative “experiment” on dichloroacetate
  9. Slumming around The DCA Site (TheDCASite.com), appalled at what I’m finding
  10. Slumming around The DCA Site (TheDCASite.com), the finale (for now)
  11. It’s nice to be noticed
  12. The deadly deviousness of the cancer cell, or how dichloroacetate (DCA) might fail
  13. The dichloroacetate (DCA) self-medication phenomenon hits the mainstream media
  14. Dichloroacetate (DCA) and cancer: Magical thinking versus Tumor Biology 101
  15. Checking in with The DCA Site
  16. Dichloroacetate and The DCA Site: A low bar for “success”
  17. Dichloroacetate (DCA): A scientist’s worst nightmare?
  18. Dichloroacetate and The DCA Site: A low bar for “success” (part 2)
  19. “Clinical research” on dichloroacetate by TheDCASite.com: A travesty of science
  20. A family practitioner and epidemiologist are prescribing dichloracetate (DCA) in Canada
  21. An “arrogant medico” makes one last comment on dichloroacetate (DCA)

Posts by fellow ScienceBlogger Abel Pharmboy:

  1. The dichloroacetate (DCA) cancer kerfuffle
  2. Where to buy dichloroacetate…
  3. Local look at dichloroacetate (DCA) hysteria
  4. Edmonton pharmacist asked to stop selling dichloroacetate (DCA)
  5. Four days, four dichloroacetate (DCA) newspaper articles
  6. Perversion of good science
  7. CBC’s ‘The Current’ on dichloroacetate (DCA)

Comments

  1. #1 Simon
    January 23, 2007

    I meant to have asked this in the previous thread on this topic: If we accept that big pharma has a conspiracy to stop this drug being tested, why don’t countries with social health care (like the UK) perform the trials? Surely it would save them money in the long run? Or are the people running the NHS(etc) also paid off by big pharma?

  2. #2 Robster
    January 23, 2007

    I have one thought on this that I haven’t seen raised elsewhere. The research, to date, has been done in Canada, which has a smaller population, hence, fewer cancer patients to enrole in trials.

    Also, Canada does not spend nearly as much money on medical research as the US. Money is tight for Canadian researchers, and with these findings, they can justify asking for some more grant money. It doesn’t surprise me, that without a corporate sponsor, that a Canadian research hospital might hit up some big name donors. Don’t blame them a bit.

  3. #3 Chris Noble
    January 24, 2007

    This paper attempts to answer some of the points you raise about the dangers of bypassing the normal (if flawed) peer-review process.

    The question I should like to pose is this: if you are a biomedical scientist who fails to convince your peers of your views on a particular matter of legitimate scientific inquiry, is it acceptable that you take your minority views to the streets in order to drum up public and media support for your stance?

    http://www.udo-schuklenk.org/files/prbspd.pdf

  4. #4 Shygetz
    January 24, 2007

    I agree with you in part, Orac, but I’m afraid the scientist-as-salesman model has already gone past the point of no return. In the current NIH environment of interdisciplinary research, it is not uncommon to find a peer review committee where a large number of members are not experts in your speciality, and therefore often judge your work based on your ability to sell it to an educated layperson, as well as your public profile. I know that my field has one scientist in particular who is incredibly well-funded through traditional peer-reviewed mechanisms, even though the bulk of people in his speciality finds him unethical and his science questionable. The reason he is funded so well is because he is a superb salesman. As a student, I was taught the need to “sell” your work, and I teach this to those that work for me. I wish it weren’t so, but I don’t see this as a first step down the slippery slope; rather, I see it as yet another meter passed about halfway down the mountain.

  5. #5 Lab Cat
    January 24, 2007

    There was just an editorial about this in New Scientist. Unfortunately you need a subscription to read the whole article. For those of you who have subscriptions or whose institutions do, it can be found at http://www.newscientist.com by searching under DCA.

    I think New Scientist isn’t sceptical enough sometimes.

  6. #6 anon
    February 6, 2007

    Given that the funding climate right now for research is pretty bad, it’s not unreasonable to try to extract funds from other sources,
    ===============
    Please read the article this links to.

    http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20061206/stelmach_klein_061206?s_name=&no_ads=

    I would think that the Alberta government’s pledge to put between half and a billion dollars towards cancer research should fund the DCA study quite nicely. I cannot imagine asking for public freaking donations for research this important. Who do they think will donate? Alberta is a rich province and has a lot of retired almost dead multi mult multi millionaires, but why not apply for this money as opposed to waiting for some old guy to die?

    And, there is a lot of cancer research and stuff like that in alberta. There is the Cross Cancer Institute right on the edge of the Uof A campus in Edmonton and the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary. I have no doubt that they are able to recruit enough patients for studies, as there are a few million people within about a five hour drive of Edmonton and Calgary.

  7. #7 anon
    February 6, 2007

    Given that the funding climate right now for research is pretty bad, it’s not unreasonable to try to extract funds from other sources,
    ===============
    Please read the article this links to.

    http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20061206/stelmach_klein_061206?s_name=&no_ads=

    I would think that the Alberta government’s pledge to put between half and a billion dollars towards cancer research should fund the DCA study quite nicely. I cannot imagine asking for public freaking donations for research this important. Who do they think will donate? Alberta is a rich province and has a lot of retired almost dead multi mult multi millionaires, but why not apply for this money as opposed to waiting for some old guy to die?

    And, there is a lot of cancer research and stuff like that in alberta. There is the Cross Cancer Institute right on the edge of the Uof A campus in Edmonton and the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary. I have no doubt that they are able to recruit enough patients for studies, as there are a few million people within about a five hour drive of Edmonton and Calgary.

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