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Why is science doing so poorly in the fight against cancer?

We all know that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the outcome to change is a mark of insanity. It's time for some fresh ideas on cancer research.

Researchers working at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Research Institute. Photograph: Getty Images

As thousands of women line up to run Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life this summer, few will be aware of how poorly science is doing in the fight against cancer. It’s not something anyone likes to talk about. But now, after years of silence, two dissenters have come along at once.

Few of us are untouched by cancer. If it is not a personal experience, we know someone whose life has been, or is being, affected by this most hideous of life’s processes. Everyone wants to do something about this scourge of modern living. That was why, in 1971, President Nixon declared war on cancer. He had all the confidence of a man whose national space agency had just left human footprints on the moon. Making an impact on cancer has proved much harder, however. We are now better at combating childhood leukaemia than we were, but few other cancers have succumbed to science.

In 1950, cancer killed 193 per 100,000 people. In 2004, the numbers were hardly changed: 186. Many billions of dollars and 54 years of research had saved seven lives out of every 100,000. It’s hardly a success story, especially when compared with the 63 per cent drop in death rates from cardiovascular disease over the same period. We have made a huge difference by using preventative information – getting people to stop smoking and exercise more, for instance. Curing cancer that has already taken hold, though, remains a matter of battering it with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

Those kinds of figures are why, in 2007, the deputy director of the US National Cancer Institute asked Paul Davies to get involved. Davies is a physicist; speaking of his forays into cancer research at a New Scientist event in London this month, he acknowledged the problems of invading other people’s research territory. Nonetheless, he suggests, a fresh set of brains asking dumb questions is not always a bad thing.

So far, the result of his work with other physicists is to suggest that cancer may be an extremely ancient cellular program that creates a secondary, competing organism within the body. Davies sees the program as a genie in the bottle: when something – stress, or some kind of injury to the cell – breaks the bottle, the genie is released. Spending billions on examining cancer cells is like examining the shards of the bottle while ignoring the genie, Davies reckons.

Just as left-field is Maurice Saatchi’s incursion into the cancer arena. The former ad executive is even less (formally) qualified than Davies to offer critiques of the cancer establishment, but he is far more belligerent. Watching his wife die of ovarian cancer, Saatchi was struck by what he calls the “medieval” nature of the treatment options currently available. In April, he told the New Statesman of his decision to launch a private member’s bill in the House of Lords in order to give doctors more scope to try innovative unlicensed treatments.

The medical research establishment will no doubt scoff at Saatchi’s call; yet it is not always a bad thing to approach a scientific field with the heart as well as the head. The IVF pioneer Robert Edwards was spurred into action by his friendship with a couple who were unable to have children. Whether or not Davies or Saatchi are ultimately successful in their attempts to regain some ground in our fight against cancer is not really the point. The point is to acknowledge that fresh ideas are required.

We all know that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the outcome to change is a mark of insanity. Let’s end this cancer madness now.