Monday, 12 September 2011

All cancers cured with magic flower bombs! For real this time!

Anyone who glanced at Monday's Evening Herald couldn't help but notice a title not too dissimilar to the one above sprawled across 60% of the page. "Humble flower that could be smart bomb cure for all cancers" read the headline, and if you're so inclined you can read the article here.

Above: A humble flower smartbomb - destroying all cancers, perhaps?

Well, I'm sure glad that's over. Cancer will affect 1 in 3 of us, so no self respecting news paper would ever sensationalise a headline like this unless humble flower smartbombs, hereafter referred to as HFSBs, really were destroying cancers left right and centre. Right? Well, no, unfortunately not. Though there is a fascinating story here, and a potentially promising cancer treatment which may even see use in a few years, a magic bullet to fix all cancers there is not. At least, not yet.

The story focuses on the work of Laurence Patterson and his team at University of Bradford, UK, who have worked up a rather interesting potential treatment for solid tumorous cancers. (Note that this treatment is aimed at tumours only, despite the headlines promise of a treatment for all cancer.) Using an extract from the autumn crocus called colchicine, they plan to attack tumour cells directly by inhibiting cell growth and blood flow to cancer. Colchicine itself has been tested in this role in the past, and has actually worked quite well. There is, however, a downside; colchicine is toxic enough to rule it out for cancer treatment, and has even been historically used as a poison. In order to get around this rather serious downside, Petterson's team did some clever molecular hacking on the colchicine itself, rendering it harmless unless it combines with an enzyme called matrix metalloproteinase-1, or MMP1. This enzyme occurs naturally in the body, but in much larger quantities in tumours. It's role in the body is in the breakdown of intercellular collegen; tumours use it to expand their size and network of blood vessals. Thus, the Colchicine remains harmless until it runs into a tumour and becomes toxic again, halting the growth of or outright killing the cancer.

Or so goes the theory. To read the Herald's, and many other media outlets take on this, the treatment is essentially ready. Unfortunately this is far from true, with Patterson's team still firmly in the preclinical stage. So far the modified colchicine has been used only on mice infected with grafted human tumours, and even at this stage was effective on only half the mice tested, and only then in some trials. The quantities required to treat humans could still turn out to be toxic, or any other number of problems could arise, as it always the case with pre-trial drugs. While there is talk of going to human trials in the next 18 months, it is unfortunately still a little too early to get overly excited about this potential treatment. In fact, the article is mostly based on a recent talk which mirrors a paper released in 2010. So why exactly is this making the papers just now? Well, it could have something to do with the fact that Patterson is currently trying to drum up the roughly €3 million required to bring the drug to trials.

While I don't want to rain on anyone's parade, least of all Patterson and his team's who have done some really excellent science thus far, it nevertheless remains the case that the general media tends to fail badly when it comes to science reporting. For every dozen potential cancer treatments which arise, there is perhaps one which ever sees use in treating humans. Is it too much to ask for a little perspective?

Links of interest:
The July 2010 paper which initially describes the treatment.