There is a story that we love to tell, that we love to hear, that we can’t get enough of no matter how many times it’s told. It subtly whispers from the supplement aisle at the supermarket, and screams from every headline at least once a month:
“We’ve discovered the cure to end all cures. Heart disease? Gone! Cancer? Stop worrying!
And your worst fear? Old age? Gone.
We can cure that too.”
The only issue?
None of this is true. There are no miracle cures.
So why do we keep being told that they exist?
The Holy Grail
There’s a recent example that shows the problem very well, but realistically you could pick up a paper almost any week of the year and point out something similar.
In Australia, tabloids went mad after a feature on a lab in Queensland where scientists claimed to have discovered the Holy Grail of medical research. It was a molecule that appeared to reverse the effects of aging. Not only that, the selfsame molecule used to reverse aging might also be able to stop cancer, prevent heart disease, and pretty much Stop All Death.
But if you listen to some of the interviews of the researchers involved, you start to notice something odd. Instead of saying things like “we’ve cured cancer”, they’re saying “we’ve shown some really interesting things in a lab”.
That doesn’t sound like a miracle. Interesting things happen in a lab all the time.
What did the scientists actually find?
Here’s where it gets dicey. They demonstrated that a specific protein was involved in the ageing process (probably). They then found that, if you add chemicals that turn this protein on to cells in a petri dish, the cells lose some of the changes associated with aging — basically, the chemicals are causing molecular changes in these cells that appear to reverse the process of aging.
But there’s a huge issue here. Demonstrating miraculous results in a petri dish is a loooooong way away from showing these results in actual living people. If you don’t believe me, look up resveratrol. It was a molecule that did truly amazing things to cells in a dish but has yet to be used in a single effective treatment more than a decade later. Or look up the history of antioxidants. Curcumin. Medicinal cannabis. The list goes on, and on, and on.
It turns out that miraculous results in dishes in a lab don’t mean much when it comes to effective treatments in actual human beings.
The annals of science are crowded with hundreds of thousands of worthless molecules that seemed great but turned out to be useless further down the line. Less than 1 in 10 of these “miracle cures” reported in the media end up actually being used to treat real people. When they do end up being useful, it’s usually for one or two very specific conditions. There’s yet to be a cure for cancer. People still die of old age. This seems obvious, but apparently I still need to point it out regularly.
Sadly, “Scientists discover yet another probably worthless molecule” doesn’t make a great headline.
Even though it’s much more true.
How To Science
The bottom line is that the big diseases like cancer and heart disease — and, of course, the terrifying old age* — aren’t simple. There are millions of changes in your body that are associated with each of these. It’s unlikely that there will ever be a single treatment that addresses every one.
That’s just how these problems work.
We may want it to be true. We may wish, with every thought in our collective consciousness, that we won’t die of cancer or heart disease, or get old like so many others have done before us.
We can print a million stories about how a cure is just around the corner.
It still won’t make the cures come true.
Next time you see a story in the media about something curing old age, cancer, and heart disease, take a second look. If they’ve tested it in people — preferably hundreds of people — and it’s working well, you might want to check it out.
If it’s yet another story about scientists finding cool results in a lab, don’t worry about missing out. Chances are that there won’t be a treatment from this molecule for 10 years, and even then the odds aren’t good that it will work very well at all.
There are no miracle cures.
There probably never will be.
*Note: Old age is the odd one out here; even though we are collectively terrified of it, it is, in fact, not a disease.