The real problems with cancer research, nanotechnology and religion: Readers respond to Greg Barrett's "Ignoring the Big C" and Howard Lovy's "Nanotech Angels."

By Salon Staff
Published October 14, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

[Read "Ignoring the Big C."]

While I agree with the Greg Barrett's points on the impediments to "cancer cure" research, his emphasis is fundamentally misplaced. I'll support more "cure" work when we put the cause in our crosshairs. Look at the chart of synthetic chemical production and the chart of cancer incidence. Not coincidentally they are the same chart and move rapidly upward in tandem after WWII. We eat, drink, breathe and slather our bodies with synthetic chemicals that are known carcinogens, cause birth defects, neurodegenerative disease, autoimmune dysfunction, asthma... Need I go on? Bill Moyers recently reported on this and found when doctors tested his blood that he was carrying around about 100 measurable synthetic chemicals -- very few of which his grandparents would have harbored.

Barrett notes that reduced smoking has reduced cancers and that smarter lifestyles have reduced heart disease. Here's the Duh Theory of Cancer: Wean ourselves from petroleum (and all its derivatives), pesticides and plastics, and cancer will once again become the rarity it once was on the natural earth.

Various cancers -- small "c" -- can sometimes be cured and lives extended, a joyous result for the victims. But in the big picture, Cancer is Mother Nature's protest. She has allowed life to form along very strict evolutionary biological lines. From bacteria through all the living species through ourselves, the chemical building blocks have remained the same for billions of years. Oh yes, we are a clever species, but it is folly to challenge this evolutionary imperative. Sorry, Big-C Cancer will not finally yield to the surgeon or the chemist, no matter how many billions you invest.

-- George Rauh

I am very happy to see Greg Barrett's article on how cancer research has become the victim of corporate greed. However, there is another untold side to this story, which is the number of clinics that have been shut down in this country while they were successfully treating cancer patients with alternative healing modalities such as herbal remedies and organic cancer killers, aggressive nutritional support, pH balancing, oxygen therapy and mind-body healing. Some of these clinics have been driven across the border; some are lost to us for good. There are many books available on these suppressions. We are in the process of putting together support groups for cancer patients who are choosing to treat their disease holistically. I note that in California laws were passed to make it a felony to treat cancer with anything except surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.

-- Valerie Lathrop

Reading the "shocking exposés" churned out by the popular media is one of the significant irritations experienced by those with a technical background. Greg Barrett's commentary on the state of cancer research is just such. As a biochemist and molecular biologist, I am extremely familiar with issues involved in cancer research. Rather than blame an uninterested government, intellectual-property regimes or malevolent pharmaceutical firms, let's get right to the meat of the "cancer epidemic."

First, cancer is a disorder associated with age. All cancers are the result of genetic damage or alteration. These alterations accumulate over time; environmental factors, including the very oxygen we breath, gradually corrupt our DNA code. Consequentially, as we age, cancerous cells are an inevitable result. There's no way to avoid cancer, only treat the outbreaks that occur. Increases in cancer incidence can be directly related to our aging population, rather than a hidden hand.

Second, as was correctly noted by Druker within the article, there are thousands of different cancers. A better way to express the reality of cancer's variation is that each of the body's cell types can malfunction in a number of different ways. Each combination leads to a kind of cancer, requiring a novel approach or treatment. And frankly, Druker's estimate of thousands of variations may very likely be conservative.

Thus, rather than attacking "the big C," the medical treatment of cancer is better described as attempting to weed a garden, where each of hundreds of incorrect plants needs to be identified and a suitable response developed. As Barrett's article described, current technology focuses on novel drugs, each of which may attack only a few of this host of targets.

The public has been conditioned to approach cancer as a single disease. It isn't. Attempting to research drugs for each kind of cancer has not proven all that productive; there are simply too many targets, and our methods just do not produce quick or inexpensive successes.

In my opinion, the single best method of approaching a diverse collection of disorders, such as cancer, is pure research -- the development of basic technologies that will generate the tools that then can be designed and applied to cancer, pathogens, genetic disorders and more. The technology is within reach; we almost have the capacity to custom-design biomolecules and systems. What we need is more understanding of the basic rules, the engineering principles that underlay factors such as protein structure and function. To the public, this seems esoteric, but rather than call for a cure for cancer, demand we build the knowledge infrastructure that would allow an effective and timely response. We in the biosciences are chipping stone tools when we need a foundry. I encourage Salon to call for just such and encourage the media to attempt to clearly educate the public as to science's needs, rather than engage in sensational journalism. Yes, there is a scandal here, but it's far, far more fundamental. Worldwide, non-product-driven basic research is starved for funding, while all-but-futile pursuits of HIV vaccines and magic bullets against cancer consume the majority of grant funding: research using technology more appropriate for alchemy than science.

Give us the basic knowledge and tools. Allow us to understand rather than engage in near futile trial and error. What we build will amaze you.

-- Donald Netolitzky

In 1992-2001 about 5.3 billion-with-a-B dollars were spent just on new breast cancer research alone in the United States. About a fifth of that comes from the Department of Defense. Counting treatment, education and all other forms of cancers, several tens of billions of dollars are spent on cancer annually. Yet mortality rates for some cancers have resolutely flattened out. The sad fact is that some cancers are like polar bears: They're ruthless killers with very, very good P.R. Perhaps throwing more money at them isn't the answer.

-- Stephen Rifkin

Today's piece rather incoherently implies that there's some opposition or contradiction between government research grants and corporate-funded research.

It's hardly a zero-sum game. Corporate research generates floods of peer-reviewed knowledge employed every day in government-supported labs. The profit and personal wealth potential represented by eventual corporate research careers fills the labs of government-funded investigators with graduate students and postdocs from around the world willing to work for salaries that, on an hourly basis, are less than they'd make waiting tables at their local Olive Garden.

Discouraging corporate research by manipulating the tax treatment of the required investments, or destroying it altogether by reducing its intellectual-property protection or imposing confiscatory pricing schemes, won't add one dime to available government grants.

The systemic problems in corporate drug research are well-known, including the tendency to neglect acute or exceedingly rare conditions in favor of chronic and more common conditions, and the willingness of Big Pharma to elide their sales and marketing expense with their true science and clinical expense. These problems require consideration. We certainly ought to work on the current drug-pricing regime wherein U.S. patients pay full market prices in order to subsidize patients in other countries that force drug companies to discount.

However, government-funded research is not without its problems, as well. Politics often figures heavily in the selection of goals and targets, and there is pressure to distribute funds to labs and universities based upon the diversity of congressional districts wherein they lie, as opposed to the concentration of talent that they can bring to bear. Increasing the proportion of the overall national investment that responds to these political forces, rather than to the market forces that the corporate research complex follows, is far from certain to generate a positive result.

-- Matthew Dundon

[Read "Nanotech Angels."]

One cannot judge Salon.com for publishing articles about Kabbalah or other Madonna fetishes. However, to misrepresent such ideological drivel as scientific discourse is misleading and dishonest.

"Nanotech Angels" is filled with nonsensical statements such as "The smaller you got, the more order broke down" or "In its [the universe's] core, it [what is?] is energy, waves, strings." Energy, waves and strings are well-defined scientific constructs with properties that can be described and tested. Furthermore, they are defined in the context of "humankind's way of representing space and time," which H. Lovy thinks is flawed.

Allow me to note the article's main flaw: Nanotechnology is an exciting new field where new and interesting phenomena are observed. However, this in no way implies that the phenomena are not described by our current physical theories. As a matter of fact, quantum mechanics describes objects far smaller than a nanometer or a buckyball. There is nothing magical or "miraculous" about what is observed at the nanometer scale and therefore no need to seek scientific enlightenment from religion. If one wishes to draw parallels with religion, one has to first understand properly the science.

Finally, note another misrepresentation in the article: Buckminster Fuller was not a nanoscientist; he was an inventor.

-- Charles Baroud

[Editor's note: Lovy referred to Fuller as "the inventor of the geodesic dome and an icon of the nanotechnology revolution."]

You look deep enough at the smallest thing and you find "God" energy? What rubbish. Science is based on verifiable, replicable results, and the crucial ability to falsify results. To falsify something in science, using philosopher Karl Popper's explanation, means you can devise a way to show why something isn't true, or real, or significant. For example, if Rabbi Yehuda Berg asserts he has heard the voice of God, instructing him as to the Truth, it is non-falsifiable according to science. We can neither prove nor disprove it. Religion, a belief in God, is based on faith. There are no overlapping magisteria between science and faith, nor any need for them. Examine this article, and the Kabbalists' beliefs, and you'll find they rest on faith, not science. Specifically the faith that any energy is proof of divinity.

It's no accident that they focus on obscure, difficult and cutting-edge energy research, since religion has utterly failed, after thousands of years of determined efforts, to attach itself to everyday energy: gravity, heat, electricity, etc. They swarm into new energy research where they can speculate endlessly -- at least until that area of science has matured enough to test speculations and identify wishful thinking and bunkum for what it is.

-- Greg Correll

As a professional physicist, I have seen my share of poorly written articles on science-related topics. But the article "Nanotech Angels," by Howard Lovy, struck me as particularly incomprehensible. Written in a haphazard style, it starts to touch on subjects but then veers away. For example, the author seemingly starts to discuss quantum mechanics, the scientific underpinnings of nanoscience. But instead of coherently explaining this theory, the author says that it was all discovered by Kabbalists long ago. That may or may not be true, but the article does not say anything about it besides that it's the "same basic idea." The author, having not said anything interesting about quantum mechanics, then turns to Cantor's infinities. "His formulas took mathematics and humanity to the next level." OK, what does that mean? To be clear: Although Cantor's theory is deep, the name he used (aleph) is not significant. It's a letter. Again, the author does not say anything correct about what Cantor's theory is about. Why are his formulas "superstitious"?

As a final example, the author writes, "The truth is, humanity's way of representing space and time is flawed." Why is it flawed? The author does not say. There is a sense that this is true, relating to physics at even smaller scales than the nanoscale, but that is beyond the realm of this article. On the nanoscale, quantum mechanics explains all observed phenomena with an accuracy (for certain measurements) beyond 10 orders of magnitude. In this sense, it is the most accurate theory in the history of humankind. I would say that our understanding of space and time is not flawed. Although I know little of religion and the Kabbalah, I know something about quantum mechanics and the world on the nanoscale. Usually, accounts I have read that try to link quantum mechanics with religion end up missing the point of quantum mechanics. In general, I believe that something is probably left out of both when you erroneously try to make this connection.

-- Dan Sheehy

Salon Staff

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