Some Recent Headlines

Breast cancer vaccine: As cancer researchers themselves like to point out privately, they’ve cured cancer thousands of times–in mice. It’s this simple: mice aren’t people. Treatments that work on them usually don’t work on people, or don’t work as well, or carry serious side effects. This non-translation seems particularly problematic with cancer, given that mice appear to develop cancer a lot more readily than humans do (or at least researchers have come up with effective techniques for seeing to it that they develop it, typically through genetic engineering, as was the case with this vaccine research), and the cancers they get appear to be a great deal more treatable than the human counterparts. There’s no obvious reason to believe this particular development will fare any better than its predecessors if and when it moves into human trials.

Antidepressants increase miscarriage risk: The research on the efficacy and safety of antidepressants is all over the place. The bulk of solid-seeming research seems to suggest they don’t do much more for most people than a placebo does, but there are all sorts of difficulties involved in trying to pin down improvements in the states of depressed people, and the picture is further blurred by the clearly demonstrated corruption of the literature due to drug-industry influence. The safety picture for antidepressants is even murkier, because, for one thing, depressed people may be more vulnerable to a range of health problems whether or not they’re on medications. This particular study doesn’t seem very strong, based as it is on looking back at the medication history of women who had miscarriages–an approach that can be wide open to all sorts of statistically distorting effects. Still, it’s well-recognized that fetuses can be highly vulnerable to side effects in medications, and most people would agree that it’s wise to err on the side of caution when it comes to giving meds to pregnant women., so it would be wrong to simply dismiss this study. Hopefully better studies will clarify things.

Sunscreen can cause cancer: It’s hard to know what to make of the ongoing flap about the possibly carcinogenic effects of sunscreen; the research is weak. The specific research behind the recent headlines that suggest the vitamin A in many sunscreens is carcinogenic was carried out on mice, and doesn’t seem to be getting much respect from most of the medical community. The headlines are motivated by press releases from the Environmental Working Group, a health-advocacy group that appears to have a strong anti-chemical, anti-industry bias. (Probably the safer bias to have, if you have to have a bias, but still, bias is bias.) I can’t help noting, though, that at least one other study has found that slathering skin creams on mice followed by exposure to tanning-type light seems to induce cancer. The evidence doesn’t seem very compelling, but on the other hand there’s nothing far-fetched about the notion that chemicals designed to penetrate and alter the skin in some way increase vulnerability to forms of sunlight known to cause cancer. Common sense suggests that staying out of the sun, or blocking it with opaque or reflective materials or ointments (like zinc oxide), is probably a better way to avoid skin cancer. Having said that, I have to point out that exposure to sunlight is linked to lower risk of almost all other forms of cancer, most likely because it raises natural production of vitamin D. It’s possible that taking vitamin D supplements can provide the same protection, allowing skipping the sun exposure, but studies testing that notion have come up with conflicting findings. Hey, glad I was able to clear this whole sunscreen business up.

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