Prof raises alarm over cancer ‘cure’ hype

One of Australia’s most respected medical specialists has raised the alarm about hyped-up promises of genetic cures for cancer and other diseases.


The hype has the potential to do more harm than good, says Dr Robyn Ward, Director of Cancer Services at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital and Professor of Medicine at the University of NSW.

People with serious illnesses are reading and being told on TV that their their genetic information is going to revolutionise their care.

However, the last time cancer treatment was truly transformed was in the late 1990s with the leukaemia drug Glivec.

But treatments like Glivec and Herceptin for breast cancer did not arrive as sudden breakthroughs.

Developments that improve the prospects of cancer patients typically involve small steps and rigorous research over many years.

A decade of promises about personalised cancer medicine has not come to fruition, says Prof Ward in an editorial in the latest issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.

“With Glivec, people thought that because you had that one transformational change to one rare disease, the same model would apply to the majority of other cancers,” she told AAP.

“But that has not proved to be the case.

“Sometimes there are commercial interests behind the hype.”

A particular concern is the touting of over-priced new treatments to patients before rigorous trials expected for all new medications are completed.

So far there had been real but small benefits for some patients, Prof Ward said.

“But it’s not about a cure. It’s about prolonging life, and mostly only by months.”

The over-hyping of treatments put a lot of pressure on doctors and could cause dismay for patients and families.

“People come along with the expectation that you have a magic bullet in your back pocket.

“We can end up replacing proven treatments with something that is shiny and new when the old thing would have done a much better job.”

Another concern was misleading information about the value of sequencing a person’s DNA.

“There is important research going on, but it will take time before the information from gene sequencing is useful to patients.”

She said this concern was backed by the US Food and Drug Administration, which had ordered the personalised genetics company 23andMe to stop marketing a $US99 ($A110) DNA test to the public.

Doctors wanted progress, she said.

“But we want to be confident we are advising patients on the basis of good evidence.”

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