Gelman: Don’t let emotions cloud scientific realities

Max Gelman, Columnist

Last Friday, a new study published in Science magazine claimed two-thirds of all cancer cases are the result of random genetic mutations, while the other one-third develop from hereditary and environmental factors. The authors of the study, Dr. Cristian Tomasetti and Dr. Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, looked at 31 different types of tissue that contain significant amounts of stem cells and created a statistical model to analyze how many stem cells mutate without any apparent cause from one generation to the next. Tomasetti and Vogelstein concluded that chance has a much higher role in causing cancer than previously thought.

Naturally, this study has been met with some skepticism in the scientific community. Dr. David Katz, director of Yale’s Prevention Research Center, claimed in the Huffington Post on Tuesday that Tomasetti’s and Vogelstein’s findings were simply not true. Katz says because real people who actually have cancer and lifestyle factors known to cause cancer weren’t observed, the new findings are bogus. Furthermore, Katz references many other studies that refute the latest discoveries and succinctly sums up what we may have all been thinking this whole time: “Gene mutation does not equal cancer.”

For those with extensive family histories of cancer, myself included, the new study comes as a bit of a relief. Knowing that getting cancer (usually) isn’t the unfortunate byproduct of losing the genetic lottery eases my anxiety. And when I say I have a family history, I mean it. Four of my relatives have had cancer at least once, including my father (adrenal) and grandfather (esophageal), who both passed away more than 10 years ago. I can exhale a little deeper with my fears of contracting cancer abated. Even though this is only one study, many with a family history that have read these findings are sleeping easier — their guilt dissipated.

However, Katz makes an excellent point. One new study should not dictate how we approach treating or detecting such an aggressive disease, and the fact that most published cancer research contradicts Tomasetti and Vogelstein’s study casts a huge shadow of doubt on their results.

Imagine you are writing a research paper on whether or not vaccines cause autism (hear me out). There are some published works linking Hepatitis B and MMR vaccines to autism spectrum disorder, but the majority of the scientific community rejects the notion that developmental disorders can result from vaccination. Making the vaccine-autism link even more sketchy is that the author of the original study, Andrew Wakefield, manipulated data and had multiple undeclared conflicts of interests, and was ultimately found guilty of “serious professional misconduct” by Britain’s General Medical Council.

I’m not accusing Tomasetti or Vogelstein of any wrongdoing. I’m simply saying that this type of research needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It’s a new discovery that repudiates everything we know, or think we know, about cancer. Before we jump to any conclusions, we need to wait for this study to be corroborated. And while the new study allows for the possibility that my genes are not completely responsible for causing cancer, people need to be realistic and wary about studies like this – no matter how uplifting they might feel.

Max Gelman is a Medill freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].