[ASC-media] Fresh Science - is breast cancer caused by a virus?

David Vaux vaux at wehi.EDU.AU
Wed Oct 1 17:51:22 EST 2003

I know that Niall and I disagree on a number of aspects in this matter,
and I dare say we will continue to do so.

I think that it is a valuable part of ASC to have this sort of debate.

I hope that Caroline Ford will not see this as a personal attack, even
though it is a very strong attack on her science.

I have challanged her to do the approriate controls - southern blots on
non-amplified genomic DNA - including the appropriate loading controls. If
she cannot confirm her PCR-based results she should retract her paper and
thereby join a small, but honourable and admirable group of scientists who
correct their own mistakes.

I will write to the editors of Clinical Cancer Research to alert them to
my concerns about the science in this paper.

The sequences Caroline Ford and her colleagues have produced by PCR are
100% and 99.5%  identical to mouse mammary tumor virus. They are not a
human homologue of MMTV, or any novel virus.   Because almost every lab
mouse and lab mouse cell line contains MMTV, the chances of contamination
are great. Contamination has to be shown not to have occured.

Back to the science communication angle where the facts are less certain.

When a gastroenterologist in the UK reported that he (incorrectly)
believed  MMR vaccine caused autism, it was covered widely in the press,
vaccination levels dropped, and children died from avoidable disease.  The
same happened when it was (wrongly) claimed that whooping cough vaccine
caused SIDS.  Reports that chlorinated water caused cancer led to use of
unchlorinated water in South Americal that resulted in thousands of deaths
from cholera.

I believe that scienctists have a responsibility to challenge reports that
they think are wrong when they are in the public domain and they think
they have the potential of causing harm, just as I believe that science
communicators have a responsibility to check their facts and consider the
wider implications of reporting a story that may not be correct.

Just by way of another situation in which there can be conflicts between
roles in promoting science, doing sceince and communicating science, is
when it enters the commercial arena. As ethical professionals, those
involved have to consider intellectual property, patents, publications,
share prices, market forces etc. as well as the joy, curiousity and
correctness of the science itself.

I think the ASC email list has been valuable in this debate, and further
discussions in the Redback and or in the Communicator would also be

 Even if neither Niall nor I can be convinced to change our minds, I'm
sure many readers of this list will have had reason to pause for thought,
(and dare I add that Caroline Ford and her colleagues might include more
rigorous conntrols in their future experiments). If nothing else, these
would be worthwhile outcomes.


David Vaux

> There's been a lively discussion over this story and I've been thinking
> hard about my role in it.
> I coordinated the selection process, edited and/or approved all the
> press releases and promoted all sixteen stories to the media.
> In the last few days I've consulted with various scientists and science
> journalists whose opinions I value and trust. And my conclusion.
> I stand by everything that I and the Fresh Science team have done.
> Caroline presented peer reviewed scientific research. She met our
> criteria and deserved her place in Fresh Science.
> Her press release (which I edited) was speculative but balanced. It was
> headed, "Could breast cancer be caused by a virus?"
> The resulting media coverage was equally speculative and balanced (most
> of the stories can be seen on Google - just type Caroline Ford breast
> cancer). Caroline worked effectively with the media to discourage over
> interpretation of her work. I have no concerns with the stories I've
> seen.
> I'd run the story the same way if I had my time again. I confess there
> were a couple of media alerts where I dropped the question mark and
> shouldn't.
> Speaking more broadly I think David is attempting to move the goalposts
> for the media.
> Many scientists think that the media should only cover peer reviewed
> science (I disagree but that's another discussion for another time).
> I think David is arguing that the media should only report peer reviewed
> science that he also agrees with.
> To David, this is simply a case of poor (and possibly dangerous) science
> being publicised, and therefore wrong. To me, this is a case of two
> reputable research teams having a dispute over technique and the
> interpretation of results. It is therefore worthy of reporting given
> appropriate context and balance.
> I fundamentally disagree with the views he and others have expressed on
> the role of the media. The public must be exposed to the uncertainty and
> processes of science just as we are to the uncertainties of every other
> field of human endeavour. Science should not be performed in private. It
> should be conducted, debated, and rewarded in public. That's why I've
> got a new email and web address (in addition to the separation of BYC's
> motor sport interests - but that's another story)
> The consequences of pursuing David's line--where essentially only a
> single "right" view of science holds sway--and getting it wrong is the
> sort of thing that has occurred in Britain following the Mad Cow and the
> FMD outbreaks (among other incidents). In the UK there is now a
> fundamental distrust of science, scientists and the Government which can
> be seen in the recent reports of public attitudes to GM foods and the
> whole wrangle over WMD in Iraq. I think this is a consequence of the
> scientific secrecy. It can only be combated by open public discussion of
> science - the good, bad and indifferent. I think we achieved that for
> example during the recent genetics congress in Melbourne.
> I know I won't win over the old guard. But if you like my way of
> communicating science you know where to find me.
> Ps. David, this could make a great topic for a future Science at the
> Redback discussion - you, me and a couple of journos - perhaps someone
> from the Age and someone from New Scientist - Rachel's always got a
> strong view. December's free or perhaps February.
> Pps. All correspondents: don't forget that ASC media is intended for
> distributing media releases and is archived online. Therefore anything
> we say here could be used by the mass media.
> __________________
> Niall Byrne
> Science Communication Consultant
> PO Box 199 Drysdale 3222 Australia
> (185 Scotchmans Road Portarlington 3223)
> Ph +61 3 5253 1391, fax +61 3 9923 6008, mobile 0417 131 977
> niall at scienceinpublic.com, www.scienceinpublic.com
> Other useful webs:
> http://www.freshscience.org
> http://www.geneticsmedia.org
> http://www.cluniesross.org.au
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