Kent Sepkowitz in Undark:
Twenty-six years into the war, a harsh assessment titled “Cancer Undefeated” was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, declaring it open season on any claims of victory, and the criticism has been steady ever since. Recently, Clifton Leaf echoed this dour perspective in his 2013 book, “The Truth in Small Doses: Why We’re Losing the War on Cancer — and How to Win It,” while the poet Anne Boyer recounted her own cancer experience (and profound disappointment in modern care) this year in “The Undying.”
Enter Azra Raza, a prominent cancer specialist at Columbia University. Although she doesn’t consider herself a pessimist, her new book, “The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last,’’ argues that we have wasted precious time and zillions of dollars barking up the wrong scientific tree. We are using wrong-headed experimental models (animals, cells, and the entire 20th-century repertoire of discovery) and we are giving federal grants to all the wrong ideas.
Most importantly, she argues that current cancer research is looking at the wrong end of the problem — late-stage disease, when the cancer is large and perhaps has already spread, when patients are sick and failing, when even the most wonderful new wonder drug is unlikely to work.