Mummies. Cancer. Bollocks!

Unfortunately, crappy science can come from all around. It is a particular slap in the face when it comes from your own institution and covers a topic you kind of care about.

And so, with a heavy heart, we must turn to look at Professor Rosalie David’s recent headline-grabbing, stillborn offering in the maternity ward of science. You may well have seen the recent reports in the papers that cancer is a “man-made” disease. The source of this story comes from a University of Manchester press release publicising a recent publication in Nature Reviews Genetics by Prof. David, who is at the University.

I know that I have bashed the way the national press handle science stories before, but in this instance I don’t think that they’re particularly culpable for the negligence displayed in this case. Unfortunately, I lay the blame with the University’s press office and with Prof. David herself.

The issue here is the disparity between what was published in the Nature paper and what was said in the press release. Firstly, it should be noted that the paper was more of an opinion piece giving a brief look at references to cancer in ancient literature and from analysis of mummified remains, rather than an original research paper. And, in fairness, the paper was an interesting enough read in itself. The authors discussed references to cancer in ancient medical texts, largely from Greece and Egypt. They then went on to describe the evidence of tumours in ancient bodies, and the difficulty associated with making an accurate diagnosis. In particular they discussed the relatively low rate of positively identified cancerous masses in ancient remains.

This is all well and good. Interesting but not ground-breaking stuff. The travesty then occurs with the press release and how Prof. David chose to misrepresent her own paper. Here are the more fallacious, and frankly embarrassing, statements made:

There is nothing in the natural environment that can cause cancer. So it has to be a man-made disease…

Later she goes on to state:

[this gives] modern society a clear message – cancer is man-made and something that we can and should address

Clearly a stark and sensationalist message and one that has caused a lot of consternation within the University, and outside as well.

Nobody denies for even a second that there are many risk factors associated with lifestyle and the modern world. We know, for example, that smoking causes 90% of fatal lung cancers. We know that obesity is a massive risk factor for various cancers, including breast, kidney and colon. So there is no question that there are aspects of modern life that act to greatly increase the risk of cancer.

What is demonstrably untrue however is this claim that there is nothing in nature that causes cancer. I am genuinely gobsmacked that Prof. David had the sheer stones to even make this statement. Natural cancer risks are all around. We know that ultraviolet radiation, which is part of sunlight, can be a definite cause of cancer due to the fact that its high-energy wavelengths can physically damage the DNA in cells. This is why, historically, populations living in regions with more direct sunlight tend to have darker skin. The additional melanin acts as a natural sun-block.

Even certain microbes can cause varieties of cancer. Just to cite a few, human papillomavirus, Epstein-Barr virus, Helicobacter pylori (a bacterial species), hepatitis B and C and even various moulds (Aspergillus species) that grow on peanuts can all be involved in the development of cancer. In fact, infectious agents may account for 20% of malignancies, worldwide!

Cancers, sadly, can also be heritable. Errors in particular genes (such as p53, APC and the BRCA genes, for example) can lead to cancers developing because your body struggles to control certain behaviours of cells. This is natural. Mutations happen by chance naturally. Mutations also occur due to external factors, such as radiation exposure. And I’m not just talking Peter Parker and his little spider friend. Radon is a naturally occurring gas that may be responsible for between 3-14% of lung cancers.

Obesity and radiation exposure. If Spiderman doesn't end up with multi-organ metastases, I'll be amazed.

So, to claim that cancer is solely man-made is just… well not even wrong.

The amazing thing to me is that this conclusion isn’t even remotely supported by Prof. David’s paper. Although the rate of cancer was undoubtedly lower in ancient populations, in large part as cancer is often a disease of aging, there are still examples of it which are discussed in the paper. Not only this, but the authors even highlight that

the Greeks were the first to identify cancer as a specific disease and… they distinguished between benign and malignant tumours.

Even more amazingly they then go onto state:

…references to cancer in Greek texts imply that it was common enough to be widely studied and recorded. This might represent a real increase in the incidence of cancer or, more probably, an increased awareness and knowledge of the disease by the Greek physicians.

So, as the authors are well aware, cancer is not a disease solely of modern society. They even give mention of a metastatic cancer in an Edmontosaurus fossil.

Unlikely to have acquired it through television, smoking and processed food, cancer has been found in this dinosaur.

Quite frankly, I don’t know how Prof. David, or the University’s press office, can have a clear conscience after releasing a press statement so utterly full of shite. Prof. David is guilty of trying to promote herself not through good science, but through eye-catching soundbites. And I still can’t understand why the University press office brought embarrassment on itself in the same fortnight that they had such a great P.R. coup with the award of 2 Nobel prizes to University scientists. I tried to raise this with press office and received a fairly rude response.

So, in no uncertain terms: shame on Prof. David for these comments, and shame on the press office for such a farcical storm being generated by an institution with many excellent (and deeply embarrassed) cancer researchers.

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1 Response to “Mummies. Cancer. Bollocks!”


  1. 1 Sarah Cutler (@SarahCutler5) 2nd February 2012, 20:23 at 8:23 pm

    I have to agree that cancer is NOT man made. Current theories point to ‘broken’ mitochondria. This happens a lot and such damaged cells simply die and are replaced. Environmental factors can block this process and this is believed to be why dichloroacetate (google it) is so good at getting rid of tumors.


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