Debunked: Yet another ‘Scientists Discover a Cure for Cancer’ story

An online story claiming to have found a potential anti-cancer drug broke the internet yet again, this Tuesday.

Published in Israeli newspaper Jerusalem Post and cautiously titled “A Cure for Cancer? Israeli Scientists Think They Found One,” the article contained the profile of a small biotech company called Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies which has reportedly been developing this complete and universal cure since 2000.

It was immediately picked up by international publications like Forbes and pro-Israeli US media organisations like Fox News, only to be decried later by experts for peddling false hope.

What does the article say?

In the article, the chairman of board, Dan Aridor (who happens to be one of just three individuals listed on the company’s website) makes sweeping claims, even issuing a 12-month deadline for the final drug. He further claimed that the treatment will be brief, cheap and effective and will have no or minimal side-effects.

In Tuesday’s story, Aridor maintained that their treatment called MuTaTo (multi-target toxin) is essentially on the scale of a cancer antibiotic – a disruptive technology which has been tested on mice and and subjected to several in-vitro trials, producing “consistent and repeatable” results.

Other members of his team or external experts in oncology were not consulted to lend credibility to his claims.

How is it supposed to work?

The potentially game-changing anti-cancer drug is based on SoAP technology, which belongs to the phage display group of technologies. It allegedly involves the introduction of “a combination of several cancer-targeting peptides for each cancer cell at the same time, combined with a strong peptide toxin that would kill cancer cells specifically.”

In other words, by binding to multiple sites on a cancer cell, the treatment doesn’t give the cell enough time to mutate again before another peptide in the same mix, this one toxic to cancer cells, swoops in and eradicates the cancer, the post claimed.

Aridor said that AEBi was on the cusp of beginning a round of clinical trials which could be completed within a few years and would make the treatment available in specific cases.

Why is it worrisome?

This gives sufficient cause for concern, as the purported drug has not been tested on humans yet, neither have the studies conducted so far been published or peer-reviewed, as is the norm in case of drug development proceedings.

According to the company, however, the studies have been presented and been subject to peer review, namely at three Drug Discovery Innovation Program conferences in Munich, Boston Frankfurt. But there is a lack of data to substantiate that claim.

It is commonplace for a pharmaceutical startup to submit preclinical work to support its claims and use it to drum up funding for clinical testing. A vast number of promising treatments fail human testing but in the absence of data to review, Aridor’s claims completely obliterate the crucial gap between speculative, preclinical work in controlled laboratory environments and a universal cure on a 12-month timeline.

Furthermore, the claim that one treatment can cure all cancers doesn’t seem too likely because cancer cells express different kinds of proteins on their surfaces, so they look different to drugs and the immune system. 

Dr. J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society, concurs. “We must be aware that this is far from proven as an effective treatment for people with cancer, let alone a cure,” he wrote on his blog, noting that the technology Aridor spoke about may be powerful but could be difficult to work with as research progresses from in vitro to animal to human trials.

“If this group is just beginning clinical trials, they may well have some difficult experiments ahead,” he wrote.

In a subsequent interview on Tuesday, however, AEBi founder and CEO Ilan Morad told the Times of Israel that AEBi prefers not to publish the data owing to a budget crunch and because they are a privately-owned company still in the process of generating final patents on their intellectual property..

Cancer for clickbait: Irresponsible and tragic

The story, however, gained huge traction on Twitter with JP itself claiming that it reached millions of Internet views while making international headlines.

Figures from the far-right and conservative political pundits latched on to the unsubstantiated and alternative facts put out by the article. Fox News, The New York Post and Forbes are just a few of the publications which ran their own versions of the essence they took away from the original report.

Forbes later published two response pieces, after actually speaking to US-based experts, one of whom claimed, it was “yet another in a long line of spurious, irresponsible, and ultimately cruel false promises for cancer patients.”

The Israeli newspaper was not oblivious or immune to the backlash and came out with another piece late Thursday to inject a semblance of to balance the aggrandisation of its own earlier report.

This entire fiasco does explain why cancer-cure click-baits keeps staging returns on our newsfeed time and again. In 1998, James Watson told The New York Times that a cancer cure would arrive by Y2KWIRED ran an “End of Cancer” piece too, a few years later. Innumerable claims, both far-fetched and seemingly deliverable, continue to assail online readers and arouse the hopes of patients and their family members at a time when cancer kills one in eight men and one in 11 women, according to the World Health Organization.

In the fast-moving world of online journalism, positive health news stories spread faster than wildfire and cancer, being public enemy No.1, unites people separated across race, borders, age, gender, caste and class, even though we don’t fully understand this complex clump of very diverse diseases.

On a more positive note, peptide-based drugs are indeed very promising in finding a cure to cancer. In 2018, a team of scientists won the Nobel Prize for their work on phage display in the directed evolution of new proteins – in particular, for the production of antibody therapeutics.

But it is a long road from mouse to man. At a time when success rates for cancer drugs getting to market at a dismal 3.4 percent, it is best to put the most foot forward instead of adjudging preliminary studies as the final step, and while reporting on ground-breaking medical discoveries.

We all want a cure; unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius