Nineteenth century patent medicine ads offer an intriguing glimpse into a time when people drank literal snake oil to cure all kinds of ailments. But as easy as it is to chuckle at our forebears’ gullibility, the rush to believe questionable medical claims hasn’t gone away. That’s why strong healthcare journalism is necessary to help the public understand the difference between good medical science, bad medical science and outright quackery.
It’s also why weak healthcare journalism can cause significant harm. A case in point is an article The Jerusalem Post published Monday with a big, splashy headline: “A Cure for Cancer? Israeli Scientists Say They Think They Found One.” The company – Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies, or AEBi – says it will have a “complete cure for cancer” within a year, despite having only mouse data and, according to The Times of Israel, an inability to publish its research. The article received countless shares on Twitter, including by numerous public figures, the vast majority of them supportive.
I’ll just say what needs to be said: The article never should have been published. The claim AEBi makes isn’t bold, but almost Theranos-level egregious and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what cancer is and what constitutes a cure. A quote in the article, from Dan Aridor, who serves as the company’s chairman despite his CV on AEBi’s website showing zero academic or professional credentials in medicine or life sciences, is illustrative, especially given that the article showed no effort to push back on his assertions. “Our cancer cure will be effective from day one, will last a duration of a few weeks and will have no or minimal side effects at a much lower cost than most other treatments on the market,” he told the newspaper.
If a company emailed me with that kind of talk, I’d wonder if my spam filter was malfunctioning. That’s not just cynicism. It’s because using my power of the pen as a reporter who covers healthcare to disseminate such spurious claims publicly – where they are likely to be seen by desperate, vulnerable patients and their loved ones, on the lookout for anything that remotely resembles a glimmer of hope – would be irresponsible journalism.
Follow-up coverage, particularly in the US press, correctly flagged oncology experts’ skepticism toward AEBi’s assertions. While it’s possible the company’s products could show some efficacy if or when they are tested in humans, and it appears to be engaged in genuine scientific research, the notion that its products will be “essentially on the scale of a cancer antibiotic – a disruption technology of the highest order” would be laughable if not for the disturbing possibility that it could spur premature or false hope in some poorly informed patients. But even the follow-up coverage could have the unintended consequence of further spreading misinformation despite being critical and would never have been necessary had The Jerusalem Post ignored AEBi in the first place.
To be sure, medicine has come a long way since the snake oil days, and by no means do I mean to directly compare AEBi to the potion peddlers of the 1800s. But the fact that the AEBi article appeared in a major national newspaper and managed to traverse the world so quickly illustrates how, despite advancements in science-based medicine – aided by regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Administration and research centers like Israel’s Weizmann Institute – the dangers of believing outrageous claims to miracle cures didn’t go the way of the patent medicines of yore.
The misinformed hope that leads one to take seriously the assertions of a company like AEBi is the same as what turned Theranos into a multibillion-dollar company before Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou exposed it as a fraud. It’s the same thing that caused Right To Try to be enshrined in federal law despite being an obviously cynical, bad-faith movement from the fetid depths of libertarian think tankery that disregards medical science in favor of anti-regulatory ideology.
I don’t want to name the reporter because it’s not my intention to embarrass her, but also because I don’t think she’s the only guilty party. From what I can tell, she does not ordinarily cover biopharma. Having covered this beat for more than a decade, I can say it’s an unusually challenging one because it requires a knowledge of complex scientific concepts and an ability to separate reasonable hope from baseless hype. Simply put, The Jerusalem Post should not have left a story of this nature in the hands of someone who appears to be a relative novice on the biopharma beat.
Every biotech startup wants its discovery-stage and preclinical product candidates to be safe and effective when tested in humans. All of us should want that, especially for devastating diseases like cancers and Alzheimer’s. But there’s a world of difference between being hopeful or even optimistic and making ridiculous and irresponsible claims. That’s why it’s incumbent on journalists covering this area to do it for them. The Jerusalem Post should have known that.
Photo: Digital Commonwealth, Boston Public Library (no known copyright or use restrictions)