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Eight years ago, a team of researchers began a project to carefully replicate early but influential laboratory experiments in cancer research.

They recreated 50 experiments, the type of preliminary research with mice and test tubes that set the stage for new cancer drugs. The results were reported Tuesday: Nearly half of the scientific claims weren’t true.


“The truth is that we fool ourselves. There is no such thing as a claim that we make is novel or important,” said Dr. Vinay Prasad, a cancer physician and researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, who led the project. were not involved. ,

It is a pillar of science that the strongest conclusions come from experiments that can be repeated with similar results.

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In reality, there is little incentive for researchers to share methods and data so that others can verify the work, said Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences. He said researchers lose reputation if their results do not come under scrutiny.

And there are built-in rewards for publishing discoveries.

But for cancer patients, it may spark false hopes to read the headlines of a mouse study that promises a cure “just around the corner.” “Progress in cancer is always slower than we expected.”

The new study shows shortcomings at the start of the scientific process, not with established treatments. By the time cancer drugs reach the market, they have been rigorously tested in large numbers of people to make sure they are safe and that they work.

For the project, the researchers tried to replicate experiments in Cancer Biology Letters published from 2010 to 2012 in leading journals such as Cell, Science and Nature.

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Overall, 54% of the original findings failed to measure up to the statistical criteria set by the Reproducibility Project ahead of time, according to the team’s study published online Tuesday by eLife. The nonprofit eLife receives funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which also supports the Associated Press Department of Health and Science.

One of the studies was that a certain gut bacteria was linked to colon cancer in humans. The second was for a type of drug that shrinks mammary tumors in mice. There was a mouse study of a third potential prostate cancer drug.

A co-author of the prostate cancer study said research conducted at the Sanford Burnham Priebus Research Institute prompted other investigations.

“There’s a lot of reproduction in the (scientific) literature of our results,” said Erki Ruoslahti, who started a company running human trials on the same compound for metastatic pancreatic cancer.

This is the second major analysis by the Reproducibility Project. In 2015, he encountered similar problems when he tried to replicate experiments in psychology.

This photo provided by the National Institutes of Health shows a three-dimensional culture of human breast cancer cells, in which DNA is colored blue and a protein in the cell surface membrane is colored green.  (National Institutes of Health via AP)

Study co-author Brian Nosek of the Center for Open Science said further plowing may be useless without first working to replicate the findings.

“We start a clinical trial, or we spin up a startup company, or we trumpet the world for ‘We have a solution,’ before we do follow-up work to verify it.” Do it,” Nosek said.

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The researchers tried to bridge the gap in the way cancer experiments were conducted. Often, they couldn’t get help from the scientists who did the original work when they had questions about what type of mice to use or where to find specially engineered tumor cells.

“I wasn’t surprised, but it is concerning that about a third of scientists were not helpful, and in some cases, were not helpful,” said Michael Lauer, deputy director of external research at the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH will try to improve data sharing among scientists by requiring grant-funded institutions in 2023, Lauer said.

“Science, when it’s done right, can yield amazing things,” Lauer said.

For now, skepticism is the right approach, said Dr. Glenn Begley, a biotechnology consultant and former head of cancer research at drugmaker Amgen. A decade ago, he and other in-house scientists at Amgen reported confirmed low rates when they tried to replicate published cancer experiments.

Cancer research is difficult, Begley said, and “it’s all too easy for researchers to be attracted to results that look exciting and provocative, results that support their favorite idea of ​​how cancer should work, but that don’t work.” Just wrong.”