Sally James

Seattle Science Writer

Blog post

Groupthink fail in cancer research

The cover of Clifton Leaf's book entitled, "The Truth in Small Doses".

Ten quotes from the wonderful book “The Truth in Small Doses,” by Clifton Leaf.  If I’ve selected carefully, they’ll convince you to read it yourself. The book is subtitled, “Why We’re Losing the War on Cancer – and how to win it.” Many people have already written reviews in The New Yorker and Scientific American.


1.A groupthink pushes tens of thousands of physicians and scientists toward the goal of finding the tiniest improvements in treatment rather than genuine breakthroughs.


2. So, 50.7 percent of the FDA’s cancer drug approvals from 1990 to 2002 were based on the fact that the drugs in question shrank tumors for at least a month.

Moving genomic targets

3. Individual patients often have widely variant mutations in different cells within the same tumor – or within multiple tumors in their bodies.

Grants gone wrong

4. The seemingly immutable nature of the grant-getting pecking order is not just a quirky phenomenon. It reveals something important about the medical-research funding process itself: it suggests the system is not as purely “science driven” or merit-based as it has been held up to be.

Fleeing from risk

5. Drug companies argue that patent lives are too brief, leaving little time for earning back their investment on each approved drug, which they say discourages risk-taking and innovation.

Patients as heroes

6. By January of 2007, the consortium [created by Kathy Giusti – a myeloma survivor] had ramped up to thirteen member research institutions and had collected and networked a thousand fragile blocks of fresh tissue from myeloma patients.


7. Denis Burkitt’s journey to discovery is more than a remarkable feat of medical sleuthing. .. In its simplest form the model is to let scientists follow questions wherever they might lead, to let them learn as they go.


8. As that (cancer) culture became ever more shaped by the frenzy of grantsmanship, publication and bureaucracy, as it became ever more fearful of risk-taking, it lost its collective sense of urgency to solve the cancer problem. We must find it again.


9. We must build a common language and research infrastructure that can help transform tens of thousands of separate laboratory fiefdoms into a critical mass.

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