The Oncogene Theory of Cancer

I am looking forward to reading Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us — And How to Know When Not to Trust Them by David Freedman because of this sentence in an excerpt:

Cancer experts shake their heads today over the ways in which generations of predecessors wasted decades hunting down the mythical environmental or viral roots of most cancers, before pronouncing as a sure thing the more recent theory [that] cancer is caused by mutations in a small number of genes — a theory that, as we’ll see, has yielded almost no benefits to patients after two decades.

He’s referring to the oncogene theory of cancer, for which Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus won a Nobel Prize in 1989.  I made a similar comment at a dinner:

Several years ago, at a big Thanksgiving dinner in an Oakland loft, I told the woman sitting next to me, a genetic counselor, what a travesty the Biology [Nobel] prizes were. The discovery that smoking causes lung cancer had improved the lives of millions of people, I said [yet the discoverers hadn’t gotten a Nobel Prize]; the discovery of so-called oncogenes hadn’t improved the life of even one person. She replied that she was the sister of [Harold Varmus]. The next day I learned she complained I had been rude!

I’m glad Freedman agrees with me. My low opinion of oncogene theory didn’t prevent Varmus from becoming head of the National Institutes of Health, whose recent budget was about $30 billion/year.

Thanks to Kathy Tucker.

8 Replies to “The Oncogene Theory of Cancer”

  1. A number of people have questioned the link between lung cancer and smoking including R A Fisher, who knew a thing or two about statistics.

  2. I wouldn’t say that they haven’t helped anyone. There are a few genes that we know do have a strong impact on cancer incidence, like the BRCA1 breast cancer gene. So my relatives that have it know they need extra mammograms and to keep an eye out for it. Is it as potent the smoking-cancer link? Obviously not, but still not nothing.


  3. I asked myself why cancer nowdays so often and very easy to come to us. What went wrong? Did our lifestyle? Do diet? Did descent? or What??.. I read medical text book a lot, do searching, browsing..
    according to u Mr.Seth what is the major cause? gene? or lifestyle?

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