“An Amazing New Cancer Treatment”: What You Need to Ask Your Doctor to See if it’s Real

When you see a seemingly amazing piece of news about cancer, how do you evaluate it?  If it works so well, why isn’t it everywhere?

An oncologist in Irvine, California named Dr. Robert Nagourney recently said he’s having great success treating patients by testing cancer cells outside of the body first. Dr. Nagourney, who is also a professor at UC Irvine, gives patients a unique combination of chemotherapy drugs based on what successfully kills their cancer in his lab tests.

This method seems to make a lot of sense. With the tests he is doing on cancer cells outside the body, he could theoretically determine which medications will work best before they are given to the patient. But the reality is, even with a method that seems logical and simple, peer review from other people in the field and extensive additional testing is the only scientific way to determine how effective a treatment really is. There are several things to consider when trying to interpret whether a bold claim made about cancer research is credible.

  • Was the research published in a respected scientific journal?
  • What do researchers say their study actually shows? What’s the actual data?
  • How big was the study? How many patients? Is this a one-off?
  • What do other respected physicians in the field say about the results?

Dr. Nagourney did both the clinical trial and a so-called meta-analysis of his technique in 2013. When papers are published giving the details of research, they are reviewed by other experts. So researchers are usually careful not to make such bold claims. But when doctors are discussing their research or techniques in an interview, there is no review, so they can make any claims that they want.

From what was published about Dr. Nagourney’s technique, there’s no proof that what his practice calls “functional profiling” is revolutionary or practice-changing. Even though the doctor is certainly credible and has had some success – as documented in a news article about a patient with stage 4 lymphoma whose cancer has been in remission for 16 years thanks to Dr. Nagourney’s technique – more work needs to be done.

The question to ask your doctor about claims such as this one is why hasn’t this technique advanced further? Dr. Nagourney may be onto something incredible, but based on what’s out there now – it’s preliminary. With the right kind of clinical trial, perhaps it could be turned around.

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