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.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.