Listen to this story
Almost every day, there’s a new science story in the media. A screaming headline catches your eye: “New Study Shows Link Between Disease and Everyday Food.” Or, even better: “Scientists Discover Miraculous Treatment for Disease That May Fix All of Our Problems.”
The story goes something like this: A new study was recently released/presented at a conference/hyped by the university funding it (even though it’s not finished yet), and the media has caught wind. The researchers are cautiously optimistic that their findings represent a breakthrough in their research area. It won’t happen tomorrow, but any day now we’ll have a cure for that terrifying disease they were researching!
From Alzheimer’s to cancer to Crohn’s, there has been a news frenzy over some miracle treatment for virtually every major chronic disease that we don’t have a reliable cure for. Thousands of articles written about how people’s lives are going to be changed forever because Scientists Have Done Something Wonderful.
Such a shame that most of them are wrong.
Say a scientist has a great idea. Maybe she notices there’s a molecule that fits weirdly into a specific protein and thinks of an amazing way to exploit that. She pursues this line of thinking, and eureka! A new drug.
Well, we’ve been researching the human body for a very long time now. We’ve cataloged the amazing complexity of the body’s systems, noted the billions of molecules that work together in an ever-changing dance to create the spectacularly beautiful things we call “people.” And with all this knowledge — all this wisdom — we can do something truly amazing.
We can guess.
Usually, we know how similar-looking drugs have effected the body, so we can have a rough idea of what the outcome of any new discovery should be. But in many ways, we’re flying blind. With so many reactions taking place in your body at any moment, you can find yourself in deep trouble if a single molecule is affected the wrong way.
So, what we do once we’ve got this cool new wonder drug is give it to something that isn’t human but is, in some ways, very similar. We do this partially because we want to know quickly what is going to happen. (Some animals have faster metabolisms, so the drug’s effects can be more quickly observed in animals than in people.) Mostly, though, we do it because new drugs can be horrifyingly dangerous, and we try not to kill people to test them out.
The animal used varies, based on what you’re testing — for some things like muscular dystrophy, cancer, and epilepsy research, we actually use zebrafish, which is pretty cool — but more often than not, it’ll be mice (or rats).
We do a staggeringly huge amount of research on mice.
Curiouser and Curiouser
So let’s say we have our drug. It’s finally ready for its very first trials, which means we’re going to give it to some lab animals. What are the chances it’ll actually be useful in treating disease?
This is a very important question, and people have studied it extensively. It does depend on the area you’re looking at — some diseases are harder to develop effective drugs for — but a report from the Food and Drug Administration found that of the 30 percent of drugs approved for trials following animal tests, only 8 percent of the original figure actually make it to the final stage of clinical trials.
Let’s say you test 100 of your scientist’s cool new discoveries all in mice. Seventy of them will either be too dangerous or too useless to move forward. Of the remaining 30, you’ll do some really careful tests on a few (very well-paid) people. Of these, roughly eight will proceed to be tested on lots and lots of people.
Overall, about 8 percent of all the drugs your scientist comes up with will actually be useful and safe enough to be licensed and sold to people.
That’s really not a lot.
Oh, and did I mention that the whole process usually takes somewhere between eight and 12 years?
Maybe 8 percent of all the drugs your scientist comes up with will actually be useful enough to be licensed and sold to people
Which brings us back to all the preliminary research that’s presented to us, like the latest medical breakthrough. Every two or three months, a new headline comes out that says something like “Red Wine Is Good for You.” The article usually describes a new supposed discovery demonstrating that a compound found in red wine is going to cure your dementia, cancer, or old age. (Seriously.)
In the case of red wine, these headlines all come from studies of a compound called resveratrol. It’s been found in a range of fruits and has some interesting properties that we thought might make it useful to treat some diseases. But it turns out that virtually every article about the miraculous properties of resveratrol is is based on research done on animals. We’ve been giving resveratrol pills to mice, rats, or similar animals and seeing what happens.
Now, firstly, none of this relates in the slightest to the red wine you drink, which contains very little resveratrol. But even if it had buckets of the stuff, remember what I said above? Less than 1 percent of the drugs that we think will turn out to be beneficial actually turn out to do anything.
And yet constant media articles whisper in your ear that red wine is good for you, that it could help your disease, cure your illness, or even prolong your life indefinitely.
None of these proclamations are based on good evidence — but that doesn’t stop people from repeating them every day.
I’m going to tell you a sad truth now. Brace yourself. It’s going to be a shocker:
Most science is incredibly boring.
If I told you about the things I’m working on, you’d probably nod your head, smile, and fall asleep behind the eyes. I know. People do it all the time.
I kill at parties.
Scientists talk differently to everyone else. Maybe it’s arrogance. Maybe it’s hubris. Maybe it’s because we paid tens of thousands of dollars to go to university, and using long words makes us feel better as we serve people at Starbucks because our degrees were useful, dammit!
The point is that when scientists say they’ve made a “breakthrough,” they rarely mean it in the same way most other people do. It could be a massive, world-changing discovery. More likely, they’ve finally managed to find something publishable after years of dogged effort.
But every time a team of scientists announces a breakthrough, journalists around the world leap at the chance to tell us that this is going to change our lives forever.
Sadly, it’s almost never as simple as that.
So, the next time you see a story telling you about the Huge New Discovery, remember that medical research doesn’t really work that way. We move forward in tiny, tentative steps, and we occasionally stumble onto something wonderful.
And make sure the story isn’t just about mice. If it is, chances are that it’s not going to mean anything to you for at least eight years.