NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Can Most Cancer Research Be Trusted?

April 12, 2012

Several independent health groups are identifying a growing problem in the academic discussion of cutting-edge health care treatments: their justifying test results are often not reproducible.  The persistence of this trend, along with the fact that it has been noted by several unrelated parties, suggests strongly that publishers are knowingly and repeatedly putting out misinformation, says Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine's science correspondent.

Glenn Begley, vice president for oncology research at the pharmaceutical company Amgen, and Lee Ellis, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center researcher, are the most recent researchers to run into this problem.

  • Researchers at Amgen tried to confirm academic research findings from published scientific studies in search of new targets for cancer therapeutics.
  • Over 10 years, Amgen researchers could reproduce the results from only six out of 53 landmark papers.
  • Similarly, three researchers at Bayer Healthcare report that of 67 projects analyzed, only in 20 to 25 percent of cases were the relevant published data completely in line with in-house findings.

This is discouraging news for those vying for new, breakthrough technologies, as it suggests strongly that this field is fraught with false claims that will yield few if any superior health outcomes.

The researchers who identified the original problem have also pointed out several of the pressuring factors that have contributed to the longevity of the phenomenon.

  • Test conductors are encouraged to publish radical data results in order to receive greater attention from publishers and readers alike.
  • This greater attention is particularly alluring because it is usually accompanied by substantial monetary incentives, including promotions and extra benefits.
  • In addition, the publication process has essentially become a lottery game in which test operators move from one publisher to the next haphazardly until someone eventually agrees to disperse the material, regardless of its exaggerated claims.

These factors, along with others, conspire to create an information sector that is heavily laden with misleading information that offers false hopes of new treatment options to patients and physicians alike.  More responsible and comprehensive vetting techniques by publications would help to weed out questionable test sources and promote greater transparency in testing.

Source: Ronald Bailey, "Can Most Cancer Research Be Trusted?" Reason Magazine, April 3, 2012.

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