As someone who’s had colon cancer, I was excited by the Newsmax headline that trumpeted. “3-Step Treatment Cures Colorectal Cancer in Mice” (yes, I use a variety of news sources, NPR to Newsmax). But when they said that this new treatment was 100% cure, I got suspicious.
When I get suspicious, I go digging. The Newsmax story didn’t give me enough specifics to find the original medical article, but I found it eventually. The original title is a mind-numbing, “Curative Multicycle Radioimmunotherapy Monitored by Quantitative SPECT/CT-Based Theranostics, Using Bispecific Antibody Pretargeting Strategy in Colorectal Cancer.” It makes me wonder if I missed the class in medical school on how to write the most boring headlines imaginable.
The most exciting word of the headline is “curative.” These mice were cured. But these mice didn’t get colon cancer the normal way (bad lifestyle choices and poor genetics). They had human colon cancer cells xenografted onto them. If that sounds Dr. Frankensteinish, it is. You get a specifically bred mouse that won’t reject the human cells, then you graft on separately grown cancer cells. The result may or not be relevant to even cancer growth in regular mice. A lot of cancer research has moved away from these mice because regular mice give us a better sense of regular cancer growth. But the xenograft can use human cells, that may or may not give us a better sense of how human cancers would respond to a treatment.
So maybe this is a cure for colon cancer? Well…maybe. How many mice were treated? Ten. How many got better? Ten, but they only assessed nine of the mice under a microscope. The abstract didn’t mention what happened to the tenth mouse.
Before I sign up for this particular treatment, I think I’ll at least wait for the bigger mouse trial. Call me a skeptic, but I like at least a hundred xenografted Frankenstein mice in my studies before I think about it. Not to mention a primate trial, small experimental human trials on metastatic patients, and finally a large-scale trial of human patients. In other words, we’re years from having this news really be news you can use.