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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

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May 25, 2012

Worst And/Or Craziest Misconceptions

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Posted by Derek

You run into a lot of scientific and medical misconceptions (particularly when you have a blog with a working e-mail address plastered on the front page of it!) There are plenty of harmless ones that are easy to correct, and at the other end of the scale there are major weltanschauung problems (like the "drug companies don't want to find a cure for cancer because it would put them out of business" line). Those involve what Kingsley Amis called "permanent tendencies of the heart and mind", and I'm not sure if they can be fixed at all.

I got to thinking about this subject again after seeing this item, which is pointing out to physicians that a meaningful number of their patients may well opt out of surgery for cancer because they believe that cancer spreads when exposed to air. This turns out to be a common enough belief that it's addressed on many medical sites. It's not one that I'd heard before, and I thought I'd heard quite a few of these.

So, in the spirit of discussions like this one, I'll toss out these questions: what's the farthest-from-reality misconception about medical/pharma topics you've encountered? And what widespread one do you think does the most harm? (Warning about that link: it goes to a hugely long thread, which will soak up your time as you continue running into yet-more-ridiculous beliefs that people have expressed).

My own candidates: the weirdest one I've encountered might be the person who still believed in spontaneous generation (that old bread just sort of "turned into" living mold, etc.). And the most harmful one, from a drug research perspective, might well be the constellation of "the government does all drug research" beliefs, or the one mentioned above, the "drug companies don't want to cure X" one, which shades into the "drug companies have a cure for X but they don't want to release it" belief.

Comments (149) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: General Scientific News


1. bearing on May 25, 2012 8:09 AM writes...

The wording on that "cancer spreads by air" article was oddly ambiguous and left me unsure if they meant that people believed

(a) When exposed to air, a cancer can spread to other sites in the body


(b) Cancer is an airborne contagion and can spread to other people when it is exposed to the air.

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2. Innovorich on May 25, 2012 8:17 AM writes...

Vaccination causes autism.

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3. Virgil on May 25, 2012 8:18 AM writes...

I guess the big one I hear all the time, is that you will catch a cold (i.e., rhinovirus) if you get cold (i.e., you're exposed to cold temperatures). Granted, exposure to extremely cold air may do things to your upper respiratory tract that make it more susceptible to infection, but the cold temperature itself is not the cause of the disease. If it was, Eskimos, polar bears and penguins would be sneezing all the time. Clearly these people (usually grandmothers) have not heard of germ theory.

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4. SP on May 25, 2012 8:21 AM writes...

The vaccination/autism doesn't score too high on the farthest-from-reality scale- at least there was a plausible hypothesis that was tested- but now that the results are in it's the clear winner in doing the most harm (and continuing to ignore the evidence takes them farther from reality every year.)

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5. Chemjobber on May 25, 2012 8:22 AM writes...

Met a gentleman who believed that he had grass allergies because he drank milk, and cows ate grass. Therefore, he was exposed to grass, etc., etc.

He thought it was a crazy theory, too, I note.

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6. Curious Wavefunction on May 25, 2012 8:23 AM writes...

The belief that "natural" therapies are always better than "artificial" ones like drugs might just be up there somewhere.

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7. Gil Roth on May 25, 2012 8:24 AM writes...

The CIA created AIDS?

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8. SP on May 25, 2012 8:24 AM writes...

3- My grandmother thought you got hemorrhoids from sitting on cold benches or cold concrete.

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9. bhip on May 25, 2012 8:29 AM writes...

Mental illness (depression, bipolar, etc) springs from weakness rather than neurochemical imbalance. It's akin to disparaging type 1 diabetics because they can't make enough insulin....

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10. Brian on May 25, 2012 8:33 AM writes...

Snake oil in general:

People who actually believe that, say, aloe vera water is a cure-all. And having tried that to no effect, are still willing and able to actually believe that high-pH water is a cure-all. And having tried that to no effect, are STILL willing and able to believe that magnetic mattress pads are a cure all. And having tried that...

Oh, and that there is an active conspiracy to suppress knowledge and use of all of these cure-alls. What kind of thought process enables this thinking?

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11. opsomath on May 25, 2012 8:34 AM writes...

I vaguely recall seeing an article in a first-tier journal suggesting something functionally equivalent to the cancer-by-air thing, relatively recently. Like, large well-defined tumors secrete some kind of signal that actually suppresses growth of cancer cells in other places, so that surgery can actually contribute to metastasis in some cases? Or was it that surgery can physically spread cancer cells through the body? Or am I mixing up two separate things that can happen?

I can't remember well, but it might well be that those spreads-by-air guys are getting a sometimes-right answer for the wrong reason. Anyone know about this?

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12. Innovorich on May 25, 2012 8:35 AM writes...

3 & 8 - the Eastern european equivalent of this is called "squazniak". It's lethal! The literal translation is "draft" or "breeze". Most people (I kid you not!) in Eastern europe (inc. Ukraine and Russia) believe that a small draft of wind is what causes cold & flu. Btw - it's why old women wear scarves over their heads all the time. If you are on a bus and it's 90 degrees F and people are sweating, coughing and spluttering into the unrefreshed stagnant air, everyone will refuse to open the window for fear that squazniak will make them ill!

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13. Drug Developer on May 25, 2012 8:35 AM writes...

Farthest from reality: Homeopathy!
Most harmful: Vaccine-autism link.

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14. Ed on May 25, 2012 8:38 AM writes...

My wife is a teacher, and the mother of one of the pupils in her class seriously believes that she keeps getting pregnant because she is unusually susceptible to *something in the air*

I don't know whether to laugh or cry....

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15. Karel Capek on May 25, 2012 8:44 AM writes...

Exposing yourself to radon is a curative.

Check it out:

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16. lt on May 25, 2012 8:45 AM writes...

I think worst scientific/medical misconception is that there are other, just as valid ways of learning about the nature of reality besides the scientific method.

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17. CancerMann on May 25, 2012 8:51 AM writes...

The cancer-by-air belief is perfectly justified since everyone knows that cells need oxygen to grow. The more oxygen you expose them to, the more they grow.

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18. Big Ag on May 25, 2012 8:51 AM writes...

Working for an ag biotech company, I never cease to be surprised at the fertile imagination of the public. The most illogical myth is that ag chem companies don't care about evolution of resistance to their insecticides, herbicides, etc. Why would any company *want* their products to become ineffective?

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19. Sam on May 25, 2012 8:54 AM writes...

Sharks don't get cancer (false). Therefore you should take shark cartilage (which I'm conveniently willing to sell you!) to cure/prevent cancer.

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20. anon the II on May 25, 2012 8:59 AM writes...

How 'bout the one about how resveratrol might be useful as a drug? Or that it has some curative properties? Or that it's worth $750 M? Or that it's ever worth discussing again after I hit "post"?

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21. non3 on May 25, 2012 9:10 AM writes...

"the weirdest one I've encountered might be the person who still believed in spontaneous generation"

So how did we get on this planet? :)

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22. lewis Robinson on May 25, 2012 9:12 AM writes...

Mercury in fillings causes MS (promulgated by a 60 Minutes program). I'd cringe whenever they did anything remotely touching on neurologic disease -- it meant that I'd essentially be cleaning up after the elephants had passed with all my patients with that disease.

Another one is that I was experimenting on a patient whenever I'd prescribe a drug which had a less than 100% chance of working (which is all of them).

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23. Laura on May 25, 2012 9:16 AM writes...

The one that drives me completely teeth-gnashing-crazy is that "natural products or plant derived stuff" are 100% safe ...unlike those evil chemicals. Gah!

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24. Paul on May 25, 2012 9:17 AM writes...

So how did we get on this planet? :)

Panspermia? :)

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25. weird guy on May 25, 2012 9:20 AM writes...

HIV doesn't exist.

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26. daveh on May 25, 2012 9:21 AM writes...

My mom's "allergic to generic drugs". I formulate pharmaceutical dosage forms for a living. You can imagine my consternation.

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27. Word on May 25, 2012 9:27 AM writes...

Linus Pauling taking grams of vitamin C every day.

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28. Anonymous on May 25, 2012 9:28 AM writes...

My father-in-law explained to me that he lost his hair because he once went out in the snow with no hat on. Of course, I've lost my hair and I definitely went out in the snow with no hat on as a kid, so maybe he's onto something.

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29. Todd on May 25, 2012 9:29 AM writes...

@12.Innovorich: Here in Germany it is called the Durchzug and it, too, causes colds and other illnesses.

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30. Irondoc on May 25, 2012 9:30 AM writes...

Not an illness misconception, but one I get ALL the time:

pharmacist = medicinal chemist

(Usually in the context of "What do you do for a living?"; answer "I'm a medicinal chemist"; reply, "Oh, my niece also works at a pharmacy")

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31. Philip on May 25, 2012 9:32 AM writes...

I am going to get it for this one. We do not need medications to help the obese. They just need to eat less and exercise more.

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32. Mike on May 25, 2012 9:38 AM writes...

It's already been mentioned, but the common medical/pharma misconception that annoys me the most is the belief that anything natural is safe and anything synthetic is dangerous.

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33. Burd on May 25, 2012 9:39 AM writes...

That a pregnant woman can influence the gender of the baby by what she eats.

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34. JT on May 25, 2012 9:53 AM writes...

1. vaccines cause autism

2. man made climate change

3. massive and pervasive use of antibiotics is good for us

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35. J. Peterson on May 25, 2012 9:54 AM writes...

Imagine a drug company has two research projects involving the same chronic disease. One cures the disease in a week, the other requires you take a dose every day for the rest of your life to manage the symptoms.

I don't work in the field. But it's pretty easy to imagine the company will like the second project over the first.

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36. leftscienceawhileago on May 25, 2012 9:55 AM writes...

I had a conversation with a doctor who insisted that the "tounge map" was real.

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37. Chemjobber on May 25, 2012 10:04 AM writes...

@10: After I gave a long (and incredibly convincing) comment to a lady about the importance of basic scientific research (NIH, NSF) to the world of medicine, the lady came back with "What about the healing properties of aloe vera?"

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38. Jimbo on May 25, 2012 10:17 AM writes...

If I am wrong I humbly beg but I thought it was well established that removing a primary tumor could seed or start distant mets. Not that it "spreads" the tumor but activates circulating cancer stem cells (if you believe in them) or those that are lodged and dormant. Isnt that what led Folkman to develop his theories about angiogenesis/distance acting factors etc. after seeing distant mets pop up after people he operated on had tumors removed?

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39. Electrochemist on May 25, 2012 10:18 AM writes...

Pharmaceutical company mergers create shareholder value

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40. ProteinChemist on May 25, 2012 10:26 AM writes...

@11,39: Isn't iatrogenic the term for inadvertently spreading a tumor during surgical intervention? I've seen it discussed as a risk in needle biopsies, though admittedly this was a few years back in school, so I may be remembering it incorrectly. As far as the distant activation, theories involving tumor associated macrophages (TAMs) being involved in metastasis are getting a lot of interest.

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41. Copper really? on May 25, 2012 10:40 AM writes...

Copper and/or magnetic bracelets have special healing powers.

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42. Dan on May 25, 2012 10:44 AM writes...

Let's broaden this a bit: "And the top ten things that make scientists shutter are:"

10. Global warming is a hoax
9. "Organic chemistry, for all its troubles, still tends to be more reproducible, on average, than molecular biology, and at a less picky level of detail" (Zing!)
9. "Biologists seem, on average, to go into much more granular detail about their experiments when presenting" (Bazinga!)
7. Heavy objects fall faster
6. The moon landing was staged
5. You'll catch a cold if you go outside with a wet head
4. Photoshopping western blots is ethical
3. Vaccinations do cause Autism
2. HIV does not cause AIDS

And, the number one thing that make scientists shutter is:

1. Science doesn't prove anything, my (insert faith here) does.

Sorry Derek, but I couldn't resist poking fun regarding the May 1st post: "Chemists and Biologist, in Detail."

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43. Mr Science on May 25, 2012 10:44 AM writes...

AIDS in humans was started by men having sex with monkeys

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44. Ginsberg on May 25, 2012 10:55 AM writes...

RNA interference is the next big thing in drug innovation.

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45. Hel on May 25, 2012 11:04 AM writes...

The one that drives me completely teeth-gnashing-crazy is that "natural products or plant derived stuff" are 100% safe ...unlike those evil chemicals. Gah!

I'm with Laura on this one. Foodies can get a bit over the top. I had one ask me why I thought radishes even existed if not for us to eat. Huh?


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46. James on May 25, 2012 11:13 AM writes...

35 - but even if you have the option of creating either of these two breakthrough drugs...

If you choose the one which requires regular dosing anybody who creates a more convenient drug will have the advantage. There's more than one drug company in existence in this hypothetical scenario, right?

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47. ba on May 25, 2012 11:14 AM writes...

A family aquaintance recently mentioned to me that he didn't hate drug companies as much as he used to because he heard they were "getting into generics." On probing further, I realized that he thought the only difference between generic drugs and name brand drugs was that the generic companies don't try to market their drugs under a brand name.

And this guy is not anti-science/conspiracy theory, etc...

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48. Chemjobber on May 25, 2012 11:34 AM writes...

38: I heard Folkman give a lecture in 2007/2008 and I believe I heard similar ideas.

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49. Chemical Dependence on May 25, 2012 11:37 AM writes...

That Reddit link is some of the funniest sh!t I've read. Sadly, it is also why it took me until my upper 30's to find a girl I was willing to spend any length of time with.
Last I heard, neo-adjuvant chemotherapy is done to minimize metastasis. Surgeons hate cutting into large tumors with all those blood vessels. That apparently contributes to post surgery metastasis. I had never heard of the exposed to air thing, that's some crazy stuff.

1. Chiropractors! I know this might start something, but... Their hypothesis does not stand up to the simplest of scientific evaluation. The largest snake oil organisation ever!
2. MD/RD/nutritionist to diabetics -- Eat more whole grains. Really, you want them to eat more sugar.
3. Vaccines = autism.
4. I love homeopathy. You dissolve a chemical in water, then serial dilute it until there is no probability of any of that substance being in the solution, but the water has magic memory powers that make it heal you. Pretty awesome!
5. Students in my friends CC physics class who actually believe that aliens left dinosaur bones on earth to throw disbelief in creationism. Yes, Darwin fell for the alien plot!
6. Medically educated people with high triglyceride levels that cannot figure out why their high carbohydrate low fat diet is causing that problem.
7. By far my favorite is Natural = Chemical Free. Since when did those grass clippings in your herbal supplement not have chemicals?
8. The entire population of people who do not believe any of the science today but run to doctors for cures based off of the science they do not believe in. They are numerous and growing, and they are causing larger and larger cuts to research funding (heck, some techniques too... stem cells anyone). This seems to be causing a feedback loop... See, your science doesn't work because we would have cures for everything if it did... I'm sick, please fix me doc... You can't, why aren't we researching that... Cut funding, science doesn't work because they can't fix me. Yadda, yadda...

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50. Electrochemist on May 25, 2012 11:43 AM writes...

Two words: colloidal silver

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51. weirdo on May 25, 2012 11:47 AM writes...

Hey J. Peterson:

"I don't work in the field. But it's pretty easy to imagine "

HORSE S**T. The first project would get prioritized over the second every day and twice on Sundays. Having a drug one only needs to take for a week or two, over a drug taken forever, is a dream (think antibiotics). The tox issues alone make that worth the gamble.

And, if it really "cured", the cost would be a hell of a lot less of an issue.

It is exactly these kinds of BS "concerns" that drive those in the business bonkers.

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52. Jack Vinson on May 25, 2012 11:49 AM writes...

I agree with the "natural" or "organic" belief that is better than the other stuff. I particularly like to ponder the values of "inorganic" foodstuffs. Yum, crunchy!

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53. cynical1 on May 25, 2012 12:00 PM writes...

The weirdest one I heard was when my wife was in a nursing home/rehab and the lady that she was sharing a room with went into great detail telling us that the reason that we get bacterial infections is because we were born with "original sin". I just looked at her and told her that even Jesus had bacteria growing inside him. She didn't like me very much after that. Oh well.

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54. MTK on May 25, 2012 12:14 PM writes...

It's not necessarily the worst or craziest but it got my dander up like nothing else.

This woman was sitting next to me at a local gathering hole and asked me what I did. I told her I was a chemist and worked at a pharma company. Her response was "I'm sure you're pretty smart. Did you ever think of using your brain for good instead of what you're doing now?"

I was truly flabbergasted (and I don't flabber or gast too easily). Not only at the statement, but at the temerity to say it right to me.

I excused myself and found another stool.

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55. Watson on May 25, 2012 12:36 PM writes...

"The FDA is busting raw-milk producers on behalf of big Pharma"

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56. Cellbio on May 25, 2012 12:42 PM writes...

@ J Peterson. Absolutely wrong. With everything else being equal (adverse events etc) the economics of the cure are much better. Also, if company A can achieve the cure, but markets the chronic therapy, companies B through Z will try to steal the market with their own cure, so why would you invest 100s of millions to a billion to get a drug to market that is inferior? The argument also ignores market growth through new incidence of disease through population growth and aging.

My personal selection for the misconception that bugs me most is from within, namely, the news and hype associated with research findings that claim that a biological observation in an experimental system means a cure for human suffering is imminent, because you know, the part about making a selective safe drug to copy the phenotype of a mouse KO or RNAi, or to hit a gene identified as a risk factor for disease is the easy part. Pick up any high profile journal, read the intro and summary of 10 papers and you are very likely to see great over reaching.

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57. kling on May 25, 2012 12:42 PM writes...

Breast cancer awareness is breast cancer research

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58. RDH on May 25, 2012 12:46 PM writes...

Years ago, my mother picked up a prescription for a sick friend. On delivering it, her friend insisted on paying for it immediately or "it won't work."

Colloidal silver is also one of my pet peeves. I have a husband and wife who are poster children for systemic argyria; he developed neuropathy and they both deeply regret ever having been involved with it.

A few patient comments I've heard over the years:

"Fluoride was used by the Nazis to keep people stupid."

"I won't vaccinate my kids for chicken pox. No one dies of that."

"I can't take statin drugs. I use red yeast rice. It's natural."

"I saw Dr X (a local homeopath) for a cold. He gave me an ozone treatment and antioxidants and I got better in a few days."

"Do you get paid by the drug companies for prescribing their drugs?" (Followed by the typical Big Pharma/FDA/AMA Conspiracy rant.)

"Did you go to a *government* medical school?" (Again, followed by the usual rant.)

"I had pancreatic cancer. I only had a few months to live. Dr Y cured me by taking out my teeth and treating my NICO jaw infection."

Yes, really.

Slightly off topic, I knew of a old rancher who managed his anticoagulation (successfully!) using D-Con because warfarin "was too expensive."

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59. Grad Student on May 25, 2012 12:58 PM writes...

Farthest from reality: Jesus is going to cure your disease; you just need to pray harder.

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60. Nathan on May 25, 2012 1:06 PM writes...

Concept of GOD

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61. Anonymous on May 25, 2012 1:18 PM writes...

To those responding to 35, you are overthinking it. We in the research community and our families are just as prone to death from cancer as the general population. To suggest we would intentionally not pursue a cure for cancer or any other disease for financial gain is beyond ignorant.

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62. Anonymous on May 25, 2012 1:23 PM writes...

I think this is crazy but not completely without merit. Hydrazine cures cancer.

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63. Canageek on May 25, 2012 1:44 PM writes...

@Word: I thought that was a thing he did? Is it really a myth that he megadosed on Vitamin C?

@J. Peterson: I can see them putting out the does-a-day one first, but you know, when that goes generic? You can bet they are going to put out the cure.

That is the big problem with the 'They'd only put out one a days': Sure, that works for 20 years, but then generics go and sell it for 1/10th the price.

Also: Imagine how much money the company that cured AIDS would make, even if they gave the drug away for free? Just slap a "From the people who cured AIDS" label on every over-the-counter drug they sell.

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64. RKN on May 25, 2012 1:54 PM writes...

Masturbation leads to blindness.

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65. El Selectride on May 25, 2012 1:55 PM writes...

Eating Genetically-Modified Organisms will modify your genome.

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66. Wile E. Coyote, Genius on May 25, 2012 1:59 PM writes...

For those that keep inserting religion into this, you should watch the Richard Dawkins interview here:

It really is quite humorous.

Bottom line of the youtube video: Per Dawkins, God could not have created life on earth, but it is possible that aliens from another planet did.

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67. MoMo on May 25, 2012 2:07 PM writes...

That mercury in vaccines, dental implants and HFCS has no effect.

It is defintely considered a source for neurological damage by many, many studies.

But only the Lobbyists know for sure!