Is Money, Celebrity and Politics Distorting Cancer Research?

Wait a minute. We here in Dallas know all about people who have used cancer research to promote themselves. Nancy, Lance, Rick, for three. But when do we ask questions about the research itself?

The Dallas-founded Komen Foundation blew up last year after founder Nancy Brinker allowed it to be taken over by an ultra-right anti-abortion mujahid. Everybody and his dog knows by now how Lance Armstrong used his own cancer research foundation as camo to cover his role as a capo in the bicycle doping mafia.

Most of us have the general idea that there's something crooked going with Governor Rick Perry's Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas, even though mustering enough power of concentration to actually read the CPRIT stories might require a couple Adderall and half a dozen lattes.

So what larger truth can we glean from the Nancy-Lance-Rick cancer research syndrome? We know there is some considerable quantity of manipulation and monkey business in the raising and spending of cancer research money. But does that mean we need to wonder about the research itself?

Of course it does.

Look, if you've got eight women in fake nun's habits collecting cash for refugees at a major traffic intersection, are you going to say to yourself, "Well, the nuns are fake, but I'm confidant the refugee charity they support is not."

No. You're going to tell yourself that the fake nuns are smoke and you need to look for fire. By that same token, our dubious serial involvement in cancer blarney here in Texas is a compelling argument that we need to look for ways in which the blarney may have corrupted the research.

If fear of cancer can propel entire social careers, international sports celebrity careers and presidential hopeful careers (oops), then the same careerist energy can distort things on the receiving end of the money back in the land of white lab coats where the work is done.

And in fact there is concern in medical science about money-driven distortions in the research. Last year The New York Times reported that the National Cancer Institute and the Institute of Medicine had launched investigations of an experimental cancer testing program at Duke based on what may be the hottest ticket in cancer research, genome-based testing.

The story quoted a Dr. Scott Ramsey, director of cancer outcomes research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, saying there is "a mini-gold rush" of companies peddling cancer tests based on new genome techniques that lack proper scientific vetting. "That's the scariest part of all," Ramsey told the Times.

This is not to say that genome cancer research is bad. Scientists are looking at genetic factors because the research has led them there. But this is to say there is also big money in gene-based testing, and enough people are willing to cut corners to get to that money that their activities have alarmed the scientific community.

Of Nancy, Lance and Rick, the only case in which we know for sure that corruption has reached the level of the research itself is CPRIT, the governor's baby, from which respectable scientists have been jumping ship in recent months like teenagers bailing out the windows from a house party raided by the cops. A quick look at CPRIT's work reveals that genome research has been high on its list of activities.

At least 40 percent of scientists who have received CPRIT money in recent years have been engaged directly in gene-based research. And, let me say again that even the imprimatur of Governor Oops does not make gene-based research bad research. It does mean, however, that the scientific community needs to do a big big house-cleaning on questions of money and its influence on the larger directions of research.

The medical research community should look at it this way. What do most people know about cancer research in the last year? Well, just take us here in Dallas as your case study.

We know that the Komen Foundation, the pink ribbon people, got caught using their cancer research foundation to push a right-wing political cause. We know that Lance Armstrong, another local boy, exploited his own cancer research foundation as a shield to protect an international conspiracy of sports cheaters. And we suspect that Governor Perry has been sluicing cancer research money to his buddies, a fact by which, by the way, we are not shocked, shocked.

All bad. What we know about cancer research in the last year is all bad. Looks bad, walks bad, quacks bad.

We're still afraid of cancer. We still yearn for a cure. We still have a certain latent respect for people in white lab coats. But the people in the white lab coats need to reflect on the fact that while our fear is great, our latent respect for them is not inexhaustible. That respect is their principle asset in the support of their research. They should not let it wear thin.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze