Venusian Blancmanche Therapy

Interesting article in the Herald:

“Fife woman claims her cancer was “reversed” by music therapy”

A WOMAN claims her arthritis and skin condition have been cured and her cancer reversed after she listened to “musical medicine”.

Lawks a’mercy.  Where do you start?

Well, the obvious place to start is with the evidence for this wondrous claim.  Ms Katy Meiklem, a patient with untreatable myeloma went into remission after attending a concert at the Edinburgh Festival.  She claimed that her remission was caused by the music “re-harmonising her energy field”.

First things first.  The case highlighted in this article (assuming the facts stated are correct) appears to be a case of spontaneous regression.  And that’s great for the patient.  I’m glad that it happened. I wish it happened more often to more patients. And I wish that we understood how and why this can occur – I hope we will, one day.

And, also, if Ms. Meiklem wants to attribute her recovery to music, then fine. That’s her business and not why the article annoyed me so much.  It is one thing for the patient to believe this. It is quite another for the journalist to write up these claims so uncritically, or for the editor of this newspaper to publish it. The truth remains that until this “treatment” is properly assessed, then Ms. Meiklem’s claim remains a one-off anecdote and cannot be used as “proof” of this treatment’s efficacy. The Herald has no business punting it as a possible alternative to conventional medicine.

I could claim that my cancer had been cured by telepathic contact with an orange blancmanche from the planet Venus. And if anyone DARES to pull me & ask for evidence, well. I’m obviously being repressed by the Dictatorial Scientific Orthodoxy…correct?  Surely the Herald should publish MY unsubstantiated claims for the efficacy of Venusian Blancmanche Therapy – after all, it has just as much scientific validity as Ms. Meiklem’s Music Therapy, which the Herald was happy to report so uncritically.

Scientists are under absolutely no obligation to take any old claim seriously if it isn’t backed up by supporting evidence. And this one isn’t. So I don’t take it seriously. If, at some point in the future, the originator of this Medical Wonder comes up with a testable hypothesis, then I’ll happily reconsider. Till then? Nope.

AG McCluskey (2015). Venusian Blancmanche Therapy Zongo’s Cancer Diaries


No Cure for Cancer….?

There’s a question that I’m often asked.  It happens all the time.  Whenever anyone finds out I work in cancer research, they will invariably ask something along the lines of, “So, when are you going to find a cure for cancer then?”  I don’t have the heart to tell them it’s not going to happen.  There Is No Cure For Cancer.

Now, that’s not to say that cancer can never be curable. Obviously, it can.  Survival rates are improving all the time.  What I mean is that there will never be one, single cure.

There are a couple of reasons for this.  The first reason is quite simple, but it’s not generally understood.  Cancer is not one disease. What we call cancer is actually a large variety of different conditions (over 200), which cause similar symptoms.  So, lung cancer is different from colorectal cancer, which is different from pancreatic cancer, which is different from… get the general idea.

But it’s even more complicated than that.  What we call “lung cancer” is not one disease either.  It can be separated into Small cell lung cancer (caused by smoking) and Non-small cell lung cancer.  And Non-small cell cancer can be further separated into another three diseases, namely squamous cell carcinoma, adenocarcinoma and large cell carcinoma.  Oh, and there’s also Mesothelioma, which is asbestos-related.  The same is true for diseases that affect other organs.  So, instead of one disease, that can appear in a variety of organs, there is a huge multitude of different diseases, affecting many organs throughout the body, all lumped together under the umbrella term “cancer”.

So.  That is Reason No.1.  There can’t be a single cure, because there isn’t a single disease.

Now for Reason No.2.

When most people talk about a “cure” for a disease, they are normally (knowingly or unknowingly) talking about a vaccine.  Over the last couple of centuries, medical science has become incredibly good at finding cures for diseases that previously proved fatal.  Smallpox, cholera, hepatitis A & B, influenza….the list goes on.  Now the way these vaccines work, is that they trigger the immune response and it is this immune reaction that kills the infection.  Basically, the patient cures themselves – all the vaccine does is give their immune system a kick-start.

Now, in the case of cancer, what you have to remember is that cancer arises from the patient’s own body.  It is part of them.  And this is the problem.  Every single cell in your body is covered in a marker that is unique to you., called the MHC (Major Histocompatability Complex).  The MHC acts like an “identity card” that allows your immune system to recognise the cells of your own body.  If your immune system comes across cells that do NOT have the correct MHC then it recognises them as “foreign invaders” and kills them.  Yup, your immune system hates “foreigners”.  It is the UKIP of biology.

This is what can happen if someone gets an organ transplant. Beforehand, the doctors have to seek out a matched donor – someone whose MHC is similar enough to the patient’s, so that the patient’s immune system won’t automatically attack the new organ.  This can be a close family member, but it can also be a total stranger.  Even when a donor is found whose MHC is compatible, the patient still has to take immunosuppressants (drugs which suppress the immune response) for the rest of their lives, in order to prevent organ rejection (which is what we call it when the immune system attacks the new organ).

But, in the case of cancer, this system works against the patient.  As the cancer has arisen from the patient’s own cells, the tumour cells have the correct MHC, therefore the immune system won’t recognise it as foreign and therefore leaves it alone.  So, the medical tricks we have learned to provide cures for other diseases simply don’t work on cancer.  (And in case you’re wondering, the same is true of other curative drugs, like antibiotics.  Antibiotics work against bacterial and fungal infections.  But cancer is neither, so these treatments will not, and cannot, have any effect.)

…And there we have it.  The reasons why there is no cure for cancer, and never will be.  But don’t get depressed!  As I said at the start, I’m not saying that cancer is incurable.  New treatments are being developed all the time, and survival rates are constantly improving.  I just ask you to remember how complicated the situation is.  Cancer, or to be more accurate, cancers, are difficult diseases to attack, but we are getting better at it all the time, and one day we’ll get there.  There may never be A Cure For Cancer, but, one day, cancer will be 100% curable.

AG McCluskey (2015). No Cure for Cancer….? Zongo’s Cancer DIaries

Chinese Whispers

Cancer is sometimes called a disease of aging.  In general, the older a person is, the higher the risk of contracting cancer.  In 1975 the lifetime risk of being diagnosed with cancer in the UK was twenty-five percent.  However, by the 1990s this had risen to thirty-three percent and by 2010 it was forty percent.  The reason for this rise can be explained by the increases in life expectancy over this time.  People are living longer, therefore the risk of being diagnosed has crept up.

But, this does not mean that cancer is only a disease of old age.  Young adults can get cancer too, as can children, and even babies.  How can this be?  How can the young come down with this disease, if it is considered to be age-related?  Certain genetic markers can increase the risk of cancer, as can environmental factors.  These can massively increase the chances of cancer developing at a younger age in certain individuals.  So, how can we consider the overall lifetime risks?

Think of the human lifespan like a game of Chinese Whispers.  I’m sure you are aware of the game, but just in case, here’s a brief summary.  The players stand in a line, and the first player whispers a message to the second player, who whispers it to the third, who whispers it to the fourth, etc, etc.  Now, in the real world, the point of the game is to compare the message received by the final player to the original message.  The version in this example is slightly different.  In our game, the aim to keep the message going as long as possible.  The more times that the message is repeated intact, the longer the game goes on (and, as the length of the game is a metaphor for the human lifespan, the longer the individual stays alive).  Over time, the message will become corrupted and each change is analogous to age-related deterioration (wrinkles get bigger….memory starts going….joints get stiffer….did I mention memory starts going?)  And eventually, at some point, the message will become so corrupted it becomes nonsense.  And that’s the end of the game – and the end of the person’s life!

Now, imagine a different sort of ending to the game.  In this version, the message gets corrupted as before.  But, this time, the changes to the message are such that it becomes dangerous.  So, when the player who erroneously makes the final change to the message whispers it to his/her neighbour, the neighbour becomes outraged, turns around and punches the player who whispered the now dangerous message.  That player then blames his/her predecessor and thumps them, who then takes it out on their predecessor and so on, and so on…..until eventually all of the players are involved in a massive brawl.  In this version, the outcome for the individual is cancer.

This is why cancer is linked to aging.  The longer the game goes on, the longer the lifespan of the individual.  But, also, the longer the game goes on, the bigger the risk that the message will become corrupted in such a way that it becomes fight-inducing.  But how do we explain the genetic and environmental factors which can increase the incidence of cancer in younger individuals?  Well, first of all, as a metaphor for genetic factors, imagine a game where some of the players have hearing difficulties.  As a metaphor for environmental factors, imagine the game being played in the middle of a rock concert.  In these games, the chances of the message getting corrupted are massively increased and it is likely that the game will end up in a fight sooner.

So.  Keep your ears clean.  Listen carefully.  Keep your game going as long as you can.  And watch out for that smack in the mouth.

AG McCluskey (2015). Chinese Whispers Zongo’s Cancer DIaries