Popular newspapers have spent their time, money and energy promoting this exciting piece of news on their platform. Apparently, eating five (not four, not six) mushrooms a day will protect us not only from cancer, but also from heart disease and from dementia. Is it any wonder, I thought, that a lot of the general public finds it hard to trust science, when they are told that this kind of nonsense is what science is? As a scientist who goes to scientific conferences often, I am invariably in panels and conversations about how the scientific community can improve public understanding and trust in science. I am positive that being told scientists believe “without a doubt” that eating five mushrooms a day is just as damaging to the public trust in our work as any of the anti-intellectual rhetoric that is populating the headlines these days.
Without getting into the merits of the study itself or the way its findings were reported, I believe this is the time to start giving more space in the headlines to some of the really outstanding work that was done at the same time and that might actually change the way we understand cancer and approach its treatment. For example, researchers from the University of Washington have recently identified a new strategy to potentially help the treatment of prostate cancer patients whose tumors are resistant to our current main line or defense (androgen receptor antagonism).
Prostate cancer cells are usually essentially addicted to the male sexual hormone, androgen, much in the same way that some breast cancer cells are dependent on female sex hormones like estrogen and progesterone. One of the most effective ways we have to treat prostate cancer patients is by blocking the effect that androgen has on the cancer cells. However, sometimes cancer cells will evolve and learn how to ignore the androgen, which renders therapy useless and usually means patients have very grim prognosis. What the scientists in this study have discovered is that these resistant cells are very sensitive to drugs that block specific molecular processes (known as the FGFR signalling pathway). The next step will be to try and give these drugs to patients that fit the bill and who already have a very slim chance of survival. If these drugs work as well in patients as they did in the lab, a group of people who was so far been decidedly out of options will have new hope to finally achieve remission. It’s outstanding work, which uses really exciting scientific techniques. For example, scientists have analysed the DNA of cancer samples to spot out patterns to give them clues on what types of molecules were important for their functioning since they had achieved independence from the androgen hormone.
While mushrooms are delicious and might well be good for you, this is the science we should have been reading about last week.