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.

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.

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

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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