I was listening to the Yale Cancer Beat radio show not too long ago. There was a researcher talking about a recent medical trial for a new drug to treat breast cancer. She said that before the trial even began they were nearly positive it would be effective, and sure enough the trial bore out that prediction like gangbusters.
Then she said something that was really interesting to me. She said that the trial may well have failed if it had been conducted a decade or two ago. The reason is that they did not know enough about the different types of breast cancer until very recently, and lacked the resources to properly screen for patients who were very likely to respond to this treatment. Because the patients who respond well to the treatment are rare, it is very possible that they could have been lost in the noise – or even that the trial, by random chance, did not include any responders at all. The drug would have been tossed on the dustbin and forgotten even though it had the potential to save many lives.
The way that this intersects with pseudoscience is by the following:
- It's a common meme in the altmed community that some super secret drug trial was performed in the '70s or (insert credible decade here), but the results were deliberately twisted. While that is still a far-fetched claim, is it possible that there are other drugs, especially "natural" remedies, that may be beneficial to some patients but due to those patients' distribution in the general population they were not targeted by previous trials?
- My own personal investment in this information is in the field of mental health, where the biological underpinnings of depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders are often very poorly understood and can only be identified clinically. In addition symptoms often have a natural cycle and it can be difficult to gauge subtle differences in their severity. Is it possible that there are drugs that seemed to work before but whose pursuit were abandoned following "more rigorous testing," because those whose biological susceptibility to the drug were not properly identified based on clinical standards? For example if you give one hundred depressed people a drug and ten of them get better, it could be that they just happened to get better while on the drug and the drug is ineffective against depression – or it could be that their depression has an unusual biological cause that is uniquely responsive to that drug.
- We've all heard about how they cure cancer in mice every few weeks. Of course those cures either fail to of benefit to humans or result i far less effective treatments years down the line after much tinkering. Is it possible that some of those "dead ends" might have, like this treatment, been just as effective for some people with some types of cancer, but we just didn't know how to spot them at the time?
It seems like a very interesting topic and the statement that this drug would never have been pursued in the past seems very provocative. I would love to hear the panel's thoughts on the matter.