In Cancer Research, Many New Discoveries Don’t Hold Up
During a decade as head of global cancer research at Amgen, C. Glenn Begley identified 53 “landmark” publications - papers in top journals, from reputable labs - for his team to reproduce. Begley sought to double-check the findings before trying to build on them for drug development.
Result: 47 of the 53 could not be replicated. He described his findings in a commentary piece published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.
"It was shocking," said Begley. "These are the studies the pharmaceutical industry relies on to identify new targets for drug development. But if you’re going to place a $1 million or $2 million or $5 million bet on an observation, you need to be sure it’s true. As we tried to reproduce these papers we became convinced you can’t take anything at face value."
The failure to win “the war on cancer” has been blamed on many factors, from the use of mouse models that are irrelevant to human cancers to risk-averse funding agencies. But recently a new culprit has emerged: too many basic scientific discoveries, done in animals or cells growing in lab dishes and meant to show the way to a new drug, are wrong.
Part way through the reproduction of promising studies, as he was beginning to realize just how many weren’t standing up, Begley met for breakfast at a cancer conference with the lead scientist of one of the problematic studies.
"We went through the paper line by line, figure by figure," said Begley. "I explained that we re-did their experiment 50 times and never got their result. He said they’d done it six times and got this result once, but put it in the paper because it made the best story. It’s very disillusioning."