I've noticed a few stories making the rounds recently about possible new cancer therapies. Johns Hopkins has press-released the work of a group there on, and several news outlets have picked up on a British study on the effect of vanilloid agonists (such as the hot-pepper compound capsaicin) on cancer cells.
And all this is fine, until the word "cure" starts being tossed around. It always is. The number of times you see it, though, is inversely proportional to how reliable your favorite news source is. I wish the Nottingham and JHU people all the best in their research, and I hope that their projects lead to something good. But they have a long way to go, which you might not realize from the "Johns Hopkins Patents Cancer Cure" and "Hot Peppers Can Cure Cancer" headlines.
You see, these studies are all on cell cultures. I've worked on several cancer research programs, and I'm sure that other readers who've done the same can back me up here: unless you've seen cancer drug discovery work at close range, you may have no idea of just how many compounds work against cancer cells in a dish. It isn't that hard. I have absolutely no idea of how many thousands of compounds I could dig up from our files that will just totally wipe out a lot of the common cancer cell lines - in culture, that is.
We don't even bother looking at a compound unless it goes through cultured cell lines like a flaming sword. Problem is, a good number of those compounds will go through normal cells in the same fashion, which isn't exactly what the oncology market is looking for. And of the ones that are left, the ones that aren't hideous toxins - well, a lot of those hit the skids when they go into a live mouse model. Drug candidates that rip through the cell assays but fizzle in the mouse are very easy to come by. Anyone who does oncology drug discovery can furnish you with piles of them, and you're welcome to the darn things.
Now comes the really ugly part. We've ditched the nonselective cell killers, and we've shaken out the compounds that can't cut it in a live animal. How many of these actually work in human beings? Nowhere near as many as we'd like, that's for sure. AstraZeneca's drug Iressa is always useful to keep in mind. That one was going to be a huge hit, back when it was in development. But in real patients, well. . .for the vast majority of them, it just doesn't do much at all. There are a few responders (some of whom we can screen for), but otherwise, you'd have to call the compound a massive failure in the real world. Oh, but you should see it kick through the cell assays, and watch what it'll do for the mice.
Our assays just aren't that predicitive. It's a big problem, and everyone in the field knows it, but so far (despite crazy expenditures of time, money, and brainpower), no one's been able to improve things much. Anyone who does cancer work knows not to celebrate until the human trials data come back, and you'd better be careful even then. So the next time you read about some amazing thing happening to cells in a dish, well - wish the researchers luck. And go back to what you were doing before. There's time.