Taxol Doesn’t Work For Most: Why the War on Cancer Can’t Be Won

According to new research published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, the very “widely used chemotherapy drug Taxol does not work for the most common form of breast cancer and helps far fewer patients than has been believed.” See for more details.

Like all chemotherapy drugs, Taxol has common side effects; it frequently causes neurological symptoms, including numbness in extremities.

It looks like Taxol is another sad chapter in the decades-old war on cancer. The “war” was declared by President Nixon in 1971.

In 2004 Clifton Leaf wrote an essay in Fortune “Why We’re Losing The War On Cancer.” Even after making age adjustments for the population, Leaf reports that, “the percentage of Americans dying from cancer is about the same as in 1970 … and in 1950. The figures are all the more jarring when compared with those for heart disease and stroke–other ailments that strike mostly older Americans. Age-adjusted death rates for those diseases have been slashed by an extraordinary 59% and 69%, respectively, during the same half-century.”

Apart from dramatic increases in survival rates for a few less common forms of cancer, five-year survival rates have hardly changed since the war on cancer was declared. The truth about five-year cancer survival rates is that, where there are improvements, many of the improvements are a function of earlier diagnosis. Leaf writes “when you break down the Big Four cancers (lung, colon and rectal, breast, and prostate) by stage—that is, how far the malignant cells have spread—long-term survival for advanced cancer has barely budged since the 1970s.”

Can this be? There is constant hype about the latest “miracle” cancer treatment or drug. As in the case of Taxol, frequently this hype turns out to be unwarranted. Yet, many in the public believe that the only thing that stands in the way of a cure for cancer is more government funding for cancer research.

Due to the nature of government funding, much of the money has been and will continue to be wasted. Leaf writes of “a dysfunctional ‘cancer culture’—a groupthink that pushes tens of thousands of physicians and scientists toward the goal of finding the tiniest improvements in treatment rather than genuine breakthroughs; that fosters isolated (and redundant) problem solving instead of cooperation; and rewards academic achievement and publication over all else.”

Yet, as Tom Bethell points out, these conditions—created by government funding—are the opposite of conditions that foster scientific progress. Bethell writes that “a competition of theories has been the driving force behind scientific progress…Just as a competitive market system forces innovation into private enterprise, so the competition of theories drive science to investigate new approaches.”

Consider for instance the computer industry. Every year there is a wide range of new software and new hardware that entrepreneurs seek to sell. In a competitive market, only some of these products are successful. Is this wasteful? Hardly! It is only through the process of competition itself that we discover which software and hardware products best serve the consumer. Without this process of competition, there is no way for the industry to advance.

Many new products challenge dominant ideas. When Amazon was first conceived, almost all experts predicted they would go out of business very quickly. Instead, Amazon changed the internet as we know it.

Government does not like to fund competitive and radical theories. Instead of promoting trial and error and investing in a wide range of ideas, government agencies form peer review committees that by their nature are conservative and tend to invest only in status quo ideas. Leaf observes that cancer “research has become increasingly narrow, so much so that physician-scientists who want to think systemically about cancer or the organism as a whole—or who might have completely new approaches—often can’t get funding.”

It is very likely that major breakthroughs in treating and preventing cancer will continue to lag—as long as the major source of funding is government or charities that closely cooperate with government. As Bethel points out, “the committees at the National Institutes of Health that decide which projects shall be funded are inevitably run by scientists who are at peace with the dominant theory.”

Clearly the numbers say that the dominant theory is wrong; it is time for a change.


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