A Cancer Research 'Breakthrough' That Wasn't

When scientists isolated a gene linked to skin cancer nearly a decade ago, they said the new discovery would speed up the search for a cure. But 10 years later, the discovery has only pushed the science along incrementally, and no cure has been found — leading some to say the initial discovery wasn't the "breakthrough" researchers though.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Almost every day there's news of some biomedical advance scientists hope will lead to, if not a cure, then at least better treatment for a disease.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

But how often does that really happen? NPR's Joe Palca is taking a look at a series of research advances he reported on, at least ten years ago, to see if they really did what they promised.

JOE PALCA, reporting:

In 1996, scientists in California announced a discovery they said would significantly enhance our understanding of skin cancer. The work involved a gene in fruit flies, called patched. When that gene is damaged the flies develop abnormally. Now, there's a human version of the patched gene, and a damaged version of that gene was showing up in patients with skin cancer. So the idea was, if your copy of the patched gene wasn't working properly, you'd be on the road to skin cancer. Here's an excerpt from the story I wrote ten years ago, about this finding. In that story, I spoke with Richard Klausner, then Klausner was the director of the National Cancer Institute. He said finding a damaged version of the patched gene in cancer patients, was significant.

(Soundbite of Klausner interview)

Mr. RICHARD KLAUSNER (Director, National Cancer Institute): Because this gene's cousin in fruit flies has been studied, we understand an enormous amount of what this gene is doing, not only in fruit flies, but in human cells as well.

PALCA: Armed with that knowledge, Klausner predicts researchers will soon come up with strategies to fix the problems that occur when the gene is damaged.

PALCA: That's what I recorded ten years ago. So where are we now?

Mr. MATTHEW SCOTT (Geneticist, Stanford University): It's still a ways until we can point at a case where this basic science has led directly to a real cure.

PALCA: Matthew Scott is a geneticist and Stanford University. His scientific paper in 1996 was what prompted me to tell the story of the fruit fly gene. Scott says, knowledge gained ten years ago did lead to strategies to repair the problems that occur when the gene is damaged. They just haven't lead to the therapies scientists had hoped for. At least not yet, and that's why Scott isn't discouraged. He says his work and work that followed, has helped scientists get a better idea of what goes wrong inside a cell when cancers occur. And Scott says, that has provided a powerful tool in the search for cancer therapies.

Mr. SCOTT: We now have a system for approaching the problem, that many people believe is much better than the old, sort of, random attack on cancer cells.

PALCA: Obviously it seems easier to fight an enemy when you know how that enemy behaves. And yet, systematic studies of cancer cells has only brought us so far in finding treatments for cancer. And Matthew Scott admits, finding a cure has proven even more elusive.

Mr. SCOTT: I think there's every prospect that that will happen, and the question is how long will it takes, and that's a very difficult question to answer.

PALCA: Scott and his colleagues vow to soldier on until the cures are found. We'll check back in another decade. Joe Palca, NPR News.

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