About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« Missed One! | Main | Down With Patents, Eh? »

March 30, 2006

Give The People What They Want

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

I get emails every so often from people who are looking for more information about treatments for cancer or other diseases. More often than not, they've come across some Keven Trudeau-like "now the truth can be told" stuff and want to know what I think about it. I should note that almost all of these are non-hostile messages - they're just questions from people who haven't had a chance to learn much chemistry or biology, and want to hear some opinions from someone who has. I answer all of them as best I can.

A common theme in the miracle-cure claims is that such-and-such herb/supplement/device/mystic vibrational ripsnorter "boosts the immune system". If I had a dime for every time that claim is made, I'd be writing this from the conservatory of my mansion, right next to the orchid-hybridizing greenhouse and the frog pond. Who doesn't wish that their immune system worked better, tuned up to where it zapped every virus and cancer cell?

But, as Abel Pharmboy of Terra Sigillata pointed out, you should think twice about asking for that boost:

"Even if such a remedy existed, the immune system is far too complex to regulate with a single, myopic approach due to its multiple checks and balances, feedback loops, and other regulatory process that normally keep us from attacking our own tissue while recognizing and mounting responses against invading organisms. Even the most clever cancer immunologists have only made incremental headway in harnessing immune responses to treat cancer."

He goes on to mention that the notorious TGN1412 antibody was nothing if not an immune booster extraordinaire, and look what happened to the people that were exposed to it. My guess is that most people aren't aware that the immune system can attack a person's own tissues - they figure that there's an infallible friend-or-foe decoder built in or something. No such luck, though, when you consider the number of autoimmune diseases (and the number that might eventually be added to that list).

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil


1. Abel Pharmboy on March 31, 2006 7:07 AM writes...

Many thanks for the link, Derek. With regard to "immune boosting" claims, I always tell folks to be careful what you wish for.

I am deeply troubled as to what this episode will do for the recruitment of clinical trials volunteers. They are the unsung heroes of the drug development process. Whether you are in industry or academia, the clinical application of one's basic research means little without the generous investment of time and energy by clinical trials volunteers, as financial remuneration is minimal and, by IRB rules, is kept very modest so as to not unduly coerce volunteers.

I'm also impressed by your thoughtfulness in wishing well to the volunteers and their families involved in the TGN1412 trial. I'm not in Pharma nor does any of my lab's research support come from Pharma. But I know quite a few former fellow students and current colleagues like you who work in various operations of the Factory. They all share your respect and compassion for patients and the dedication to use one's knowledge to advance human health.

You and your blog are great ambassadors for an industry that, in my personal and professional view, is unfairly treated in the media and underappreciated by much of society due to the actions of a couple of bad eggs.

Permalink to Comment

2. Rana on March 31, 2006 9:33 AM writes...

About that frog pond: for cuisine? research? or do you just like hearing 'jug-o-rum' as you hybridize your orchids?

Nervously yours,

Permalink to Comment

3. Derek Lowe on March 31, 2006 10:10 AM writes...

Oh, not the first two, more the third. I just like frogs. When I visited Gilette Castle in Connecticut, and found that its builder kept cats and frogs both, my wife told me that it was enough to make her believe in reincarnation.

Permalink to Comment

4. Demosthenes by day on March 31, 2006 10:38 AM writes...

My chemistry corral is firmly based in the oncology area and I get a lot of what Derek describes. One thing that I firmly believe is that cancer patients need a positive frame of mind to fight the good fight. So when someone approaches me to ask me about one of these new untested treatments I always give the same response. That as long as it isn't going to do the patient any harm, like discontinuing other treatment, then to go ahead and give it a try. If it does nothing else than give the patient that glimmer of hope and it doesn't actively hurt them then there is no harm.
Now certainly this is advice that I can only give on a personal basis. To an industry that is already under a lot of pressure these "cures the pharmaceutical industry don't want you to know about" do a different kind of harm and I'm cognizant of that. But when faced with someone with a time span of months, or less, left I can only advise them that its worth a shot.
I also want to second Abel's comments the patients that take part in ours and others clinical trials are heroic because they are putting their hopes in our hands when even we aren't sure we're going to have an effect. These men and women make me realize on a daily basis that courage comes in many forms and how difficult it is to face one's fears and keep your dignity.

Permalink to Comment

5. impatientpatient on April 1, 2006 4:20 PM writes...

One thing that I firmly believe is that cancer patients need a positive frame of mind to fight the good fight.


I think that belief should not really enter the realm of cancer therapy. Science should. And the science of this is certainly all over the map. Positive thinking does not necessarily help. There are studies, some not so well done, that come to different conclusions. But the ones that I have seen say that being angry and fighting the disease actively are better than sitting around being happy.

This happiness/positive thinking boosts the immune system stuff really needs to be looked at as NEW- and therefore unproven. I know a LOT of people who were happy people who still croaked when cancer called. I know some pretty grumpy ones that lived. Until there is HARD proof- you are selling the same thing the alties are selling just for free.

There is a lot more to the immune system than being happy. And happiness can be directly affected by ones immune system------cytokines in the nervous system can send signals to the brain that "tell" a person that they are tired and need to be away from the busy-ness of life. This immune system activation can happen even before one has physical signs of injury to the body.

Please do not pass this belief onto anyone you love- it will only make them feel like they didn't try hard enough if they do succumb to their cancer.

Permalink to Comment

6. funkyneuron on April 3, 2006 7:56 AM writes...

What is life good for, whether you have 50 years in front or 5 months, but to be as happy as possible? If you have cancer, obviously happiness is not the first emotion to occur. However, if you spend the last 5 months of your life sad, dejected and depresses, that is a real shame for you, your family, and your friends. You take what you can get in this life.
My best wishes to all who are suffering from cancer. Try to laugh a little: even if it doesn't cure you, a good laugh goes a long way!

Permalink to Comment

7. Timothy on April 3, 2006 8:10 AM writes...

To a certain extent I agree with the other commenters, that if something makes you feel better about your situation...well, okay, go ahead.

My problem lies with people like Trudeau who push this herbal crap in place of real medical treatment. Case-and-point: there's a diabetic (type II, likely stress-induced, according to his doctors) in my office who insists that everybody needs "glyconutrients" or some such. Says whatever magic gumdrop he's chewing on keeps his blood-sugar in check and will make healthy people healthier, and on and on. The bit about "eight essential sugars" is my favorite. Of course, there's not a double-blind clinical trial to support any of this in sight. And it's awfully foolish to think there's a pill a healthy person can take to become healthier.

Permalink to Comment

8. Chris C. on April 4, 2006 6:08 AM writes...

I think that TGN1412 was an immunosuppressant, not a booster. The idea was to inhibit autoimmune responses by blocking CD28.

Permalink to Comment

9. Derek Lowe on April 4, 2006 7:40 AM writes...

That was the idea, all right, through a mechanism involving regulatory T cells. But things clearly went off track.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry