Cancer News: Are two-thirds of cancers down to bad luck?

A Tree of Life Sciences Director gets stuck in to the debate about a recent controversial cancer publication, which received high-profile coverage in the media over the weekend (2–4 January 2015).

The cancer publication had widespread coverage in the press and on prime-time TV and radio news.

The study involved the application of mathematical models to data already in the published literature. A statistician was quick to respond in his blogpost, with criticism of some of the media coverage and questions regarding some claims in the actual publication.

An interesting on-line debate ensued involving statisticians, scientists, clinicians and journalists. A key question is – what proportion of cancers are really due to “bad luck,” that is, random mutations arising during DNA replication in normal, noncancerous stem cells? Our director Julie Charlesworth contributed points regarding cancer cell biology, and commented on wider perspectives such as the importance of patient and public awareness about cancer. She also called for continued vigilance about exposures to potential carcinogens and added that misinterpretation of new ideas should not ‘downplay’ the need for rigorous testing before widespread use of chemicals and new products.

A journalist suggested that ‘perhaps scientists interested in media accuracy can help reporters find informed and independent experts before their stories appear’ and the weekend discussion culminated in a proposal for ‘a New Year’s resolution for scientists and reporters to talk more’.

The publication in Science is very interesting. The findings merit further exploration in terms of causes, steps and mechanisms in cancer development. In addition the media coverage has stimulated discussion on wider issues relating to the interpretation and reporting of science.

The debates continue ………