First, and perhaps the most obvious, is the fact that this is an announcement of a research deal. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not a new breakthrough. It is not something that has been proven effective in improving cancer detection and treatment. Not that it is anything less than stunning to develop and demonstrate that this technology works-but as with all research it is a giant step to go successfully from the laboratory phase of development to the clinical phase of making a real difference in patients’ lives.
So that in essence is what the fuss is all about: the researchers have signed a contract with a company to further develop this research and determine whether in fact it can be applied successfully to large numbers of patients in a more efficient and less expensive manner.
I think it is also important to remember that there are many researchers who have been working on other techniques to accomplish the same goal, some for many years.
Nature Network Boston looks at how much NIH money when into the MGH cancer chip technology, how well it works and who will benefit.
First, the funding:
By the time the Globe reported on the hospital’s $30 million deal with Johnson & Johnson yesterday, MGH researchers had already developed a prototype of a chip that can detect circulating tumor cells or CTCs. But, the money didn’t come from the Accelerator Fund, a pool of money Harvard donors have put up to render university research market-ready. It came from Hollywood. So, of course, it came with a movie about the scientific “dream team.” (See clip above.)
Back up a little bit first. None of this would have happened without initial funding from the National Institutes of Health. NIH has supported the BioMEMS Resource Center that spawned the chip with a $7.5 million funding since 2004 and spent another $6.7 million on the group’s CTC detection research over the past four years.
Next, the clinical questions:
So, while the research world celebrates all this, patients have been raiding questions on the comments page of the Boston Globe story.
One poster writes:This sounds promising–a new way to monitor the presence and level of cancer cells in the blood which might otherwise be undiscovered and therefore untreated. Go for it!
Another wonders: I don’t understand the hoopla at all. Everyone, every day, has cancer cells in their body. You only have an issue when the immune system doesn’t take care of them and they get out of control. So I take this test and it comes back for cancer … how do I know if I have an issue or, if my body will take care of it? …
This seems like total smoke and mirrors. I remember fondly the supposed Ovarian Cancer (sic) blood test that never happened.
For the record, Toner said the test is very sensitive but that the specificity varies from cancer to cancer and patient to patient.