Thursday, 19 June 2008

Invasion of the body snatchers?

I'm not a great fan of sci-fi, but those films I do enjoy are the older ones that raise philosophical questions (The Fly considers a classic question in philosophy around identity and the mind/body problem) or political questions (the original Body Snatchers airs concern over communism). The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is particularly scary because the point is that you can't tell who is still human and who is now alien. When you can't tell it's so easy to get yourself trapped with the wrong sort of person.

This conundrum - how do you tell good from bad, real from fake - arose this morning. There was an item on the news about a man whose skin cancer had been cured by an injection of his own cloned immune cells. The report is full of detail - the cancer was advanced, had spread, five billion cloned cells were used. It all sounds plausible to the lay person, and it's on the BBC website and in the Guardian so it must be true, mustn't it?

It's certainly a rather bizarre story. For years we've been told cancer can be cured only through radical surgery, chemotherapy that makes you feel worse then the cancer ever did, and a very large dose of luck. Now we're being told that our own immune systems can reverse very advanced cancer.

Only two days ago the American Food and Drug Administration warned people off products sold on the internet as cancer cures. These "cures" include shark cartilage, coral calcium and various mushrooms. To the untutored eye shark cartilage is no more or less mad an idea than injections of cloned cells. Quackwatch even has a section refuting claims that animal cells injected into the body can cure cancer, which seems very similar to this current story.

This story comes from good sources, and I hope that the research will be proved to be correct, verifiable and repeatable. But in the meantime people with cancer - and other diseases - will continue to clutch at straws, to take the hands of Pod People and to chose the fake and the dangerous over the safe and the real. Who can save them? Perhaps a well informed, thoughtful, understanding clinician with time to listen and explain?

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