A cure for cancer, except for the 88 percent who die.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 1 2006 10:04 AM

A Cure for Cancer

if you don't count the 88 percent death rate.

Human Nature has returned from a two-month fellowship. For the latest Human Nature columns on terrorism, air conditioning, and genital mutilation, click here.

Gene therapy helped beat cancer in two of 17 patients. Doctors used a virus to infect white blood cells with genetic instructions for targeting each patient's cancer. The other 15 patients are dead or dying. Happy spins: 1) Gene therapy can cure cancer! 2) We can fight cancer using your immune system instead of chemo and radiation. Skeptical reactions: 1) Saving two of 17 patients is not encouraging. 2) Make that one of 17, since the therapy didn't even wipe out all the cancer in one patient. 3) It's only been 18 months; if the cancers return, the result could be zero of 17. 4) Gene therapy's long-term batting average is even worse. 5) The white cells weren't even tested to make sure they caused the two recoveries.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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The stem-cell war took a new twist. A leading research firm, Advanced Cell Technology, said it had generated embryonic stem cells from "blastomeres," cells taken from eight-cell embryos. Since such early embryos commonly survive removal of a blastomere for genetic testing during IVF, the idea is to make stem cells from the embryo without killing it. ACT's spin: We made the stem cells "using an approach that does not harm embryos." Critics' reactions: 1) Does not harm embryos? You killed them all when you plucked off the blastomeres. 2) You cheated by using extra blastomeres to help each other develop, which can't be done without killing embryos. 3) This is more stem-cell fraud like the Korean cloning scandal. 4) What couple who's going through IVF anxiety is going to  let you pluck a cell from their embryo? ACT's rebuttal: Well, our method doesn't harm embryos in principle. (WSJ link requires subscription.) (For Human Nature's initial report on the ACT idea, click here. For Human Nature's take on the Korean fraud, click here.)

Smokers, lesbians, and single women, but not fat women or women over 40, would be allowed to get fertility treatment through the National Health Service under recommendations from the British Fertility Society. The cutoff is a body mass index of 36. Rationales: 1) "Obese women are less likely to get pregnant and more likely to encounter health problems." 2) "The NHS is already stopping women who are obese from having fertility treatment," so let's make it official. Fertility Society's view: "Continued inequality of access to treatment is unacceptable in a state-funded health service." Cynic's view: Evidently, some inequalities are more unequal than others. (For Human Nature's previous update on the risks of smoking during pregnancy, click here. For smoking and impotence, click here. For comparative regulation of smoking and obesity, click here. For procreation after 40, click here.)

Tobacco companies have increased the average cigarette's nicotine delivery by 10 percent over two decades. Marlboros, favored by high schoolers, are up 12 percent; some brands are up 30 percent or more. Tobacco industry's spin: It could be accidental variation. Media's reaction: Accidental variation in 92 of 116 brands? Critics' take: Like any shrewd drug dealer, the industry is making it harder to quit.

SAT scores suffered their biggest drop in three decades. The College Board says the decrease is "almost insignificant," but critics point out that the board hailed previous, smaller improvements as significant. Excuses: 1) This year's test is longer, and students don't have that much stamina. 2) It puts more emphasis on reading and writing, which today's students are less familiar with. 3) The format is new, so students haven't yet figured out how to strategize for it. 4) Fewer students are taking it two or three times, which used to raise scores by about 30 points. Cynical translation: Our usual methods of inflating scores and covering up weaknesses failed this year.

Hordes of horny men will wreak havoc across much of the world, according to a paperin the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Key reason: systematic abortion of female fetuses. Current result: "an estimated 80 million missing females in India and China alone," plus imbalances elsewhere in Asia and North Africa. Future result: 12 to 15 percent more men than women in parts of the world over the next two decades. Implications: 1) "The growing number of young men with a lack of family prospects will have little outlet for sexual energy." 2) "This trend would lead to increased levels of anti-social behavior and violence." 3) "When single young men congregate, the potential for more organised aggression is likely to increase substantially and this has worrying implications for organized crime and terrorism." Approved conclusion: Couples aborted girls because they mistakenly thought one sex was inferior. Unapproved conclusion: They picked the wrong sex.(For a previous update on sex-selection abortions, click here. For Human Nature's takes on sex differences in molestation and sadism, click here and here.)

Tall people are smarter than short people, according to an analysis of two studies. Data show that tall people make more money than short people. Previous explanations: 1) Our bias for taller people makes us pay them more. 2) Our bias for taller kids gives them more self-esteem, which helps them succeed. 3) Taller kids are healthier, which helps them succeed. New explanation: Kids who will grow up to be tall are smarter than kids who will grow up to be short. Key evidence: "As early as age 3—before schooling has had a chance to play a role—and throughout childhood, taller children perform significantly better on cognitive tests." Approving reaction: another blow against egalitarian correctness. Skeptical reaction: This is just the kind of Ayn Rand garbage you'd expect from two Princeton economists who are four inches above average height

Scientists are trying to stop fetal sharks from eating each other in the womb. A mother gray nurse shark carries 40 or so embryos in her two wombs. But once an embryo develops jaws, it starts eating its siblings. Results: 1) Only one embryo survives in each womb. 2) The species is endangered. Solution: Scientists are developing "artificial uteruses" so each embryo can grow without being eaten by others. Crunchy spin: We're saving another of nature's creatures. Extra crunchy spin: This shark's been around for 70 million years. Don't you think nature knows what it's doing? Anti-crunchy spin: This is even dumber than paroling repeat felons.

Pro soccer players are freezing their babies' stem cells to cure their own injuries. The cells come from umbilical-cord blood. One player tells the Times of London, "We decided to store our new baby's stem cells for possible future therapeutic reasons, both for our children and possibly for myself. … If you're prone to injury it can mean the end of your career, so having your stem cells—a repair kit if you like—on hand makes sense." Of Britain's seven commercial stem-cell banks, one says it has cells from the offspring of five players; another has cells from the offspring of three players; the other banks aren't quoted. The director of one bank says the cells will help players because they're "injected directly into the knee and because they have the same genetic code they start rebuilding." Critics' reactions: 1) Your baby doesn't have your "same genetic code" unless it's your clone. 2) Silly us, we thought parents were supposed to serve children. (For Human Nature's take on using fetal stem cells to cure adults, click here.)