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 Responses to “The Oncogene Theory of Cancer”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    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. seth Says:


    I blogged about smoking and cancer recently.

    The results had certain puzzling aspects. I think the likely reason is that small amounts of smoking are protective against cancer because they activate the immune system. Because it’s incredibly hard to determine the dose of tobacco smoke each person has gotten, the results get confusing.

  3. Rashad Says:

    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.


  4. Mikael Says:

    Just a quibble – there is no Nobel prize for biology. You’re thinking of the medicine one.

  5. seth Says:

    Rashad, yeah, Freedman’s summary (“almost no benefits”) is more accurate than mine.

  6. Alex Chernavsky Says:

    To see an analogous example in another field, read just about any paper published in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry. We have not gained anything by attempting to understand mental illness at the molecular level. What we did get is a bunch of drugs that are ineffective at best and harmful at worst. We also wasted billions of research dollars that could have been better spent on other projects.

  7. indah Says:

    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?

  8. Pancham Says:

    Here is one more idea about cancer, this time it is ‘information homeostasis’ but seems that this idea has the promise to combine various prevailing hypotheses and theories under one theme