One of my many complaints about science reporting…

In my mind, it’s extremely irresponsible when science writers report that a new potential cure for cancer has been found before any serious research has been done. Science reporting would lead you to believe that a new cure is discovered almost daily, when most of these leads are tenuous at best.

Here is a particularly illustrative example. A group of researchers have identified a toxin produced by at least two species of freshwater algae that is responsible for killing over a million dollars worth of fish.  Knowing the structure of the toxin may provide scientists with the information that they need to neutralize it. Because fish are important economically and are an important protein source in many parts of the world, this is an important finding in its own right.

But instead of focusing on that or other applications of the discovery, the article focuses on the toxin’s cancer cell killing properties. They exposed cancer cells (presumably in a petri dish?) to the toxin and, low and behold, the cells stopped growing and some of them died. How is this surprising?? They exposed cells to a toxin that they know is capable of killing entire organisms in a matter of hours. You probably could have exposed any type of cell to this toxin and would have seen the same effect.

All the researchers have shown is that the toxin is toxic. It’s safe to assume that the use of this toxin as a treatment for cancer would carry serious side-effects (i.e., in addition to killing cancer cells it would kill any other cell that it encountered as well).

To be fair, the fault doesn’t just lie with the science reporters. Surely the scientists pushed their claims about the toxin’s cancer-fighting abilities in the hope of increasing their project’s attractiveness to funding agencies. It’s a lot more exciting to fund research on a cancer-fighting algal toxin than on a fish-killing algal toxin.

Reporting on the toxin’s ability to inhibit cancer cells should not have occurred until more detailed experiments had been done. Advertising such flimsy leads detracts attention away from methods that are more sound and well-researched while giving the public a false understanding of where we are in the fight against cancer.

Plus, it’s dishonest. This toxin will probably never be an important player in the fight against cancer. Both the researchers and the science reporters are probably pushing the link to draw attention because hell, everyone is excited about finding a cure for cancer.

Anyway, I hope I’m wrong and this toxin is a lot more promising than I think it is. Given the measly 4 sentences the article devoted to actually describing the research on cancer cells, I doubt I am.

On a funnier note, here is one of my favorite SMBC comics, which happens to be about science reporting: