Many years ago, while I was doing my research training, I was told by a nationally admired, very senior cancer researcher that cancer therapy with monoclonal antibodies was a “failed hypothesis” and that I would throw my career away if I insisted on working in that field.
Thinking back, this was some of the most helpful advice I ever received – not because I followed his advice (indeed, I did not), but because his advice taught me that even the smartest , most experienced, greatly admired role model can be wrong. It taught me to recognize I will not be as smart as I think I am.
On multiple occasions over the subsequent 25 years, I have listened to colleagues and trainees express a desire to press on despite initial negative results. I have been tempted to say “nice idea, but don’t waste your time since the results so far demonstrate the idea is a failed hypothesis.” However my early experience taught me to be very cautious about such a knee jerk response.
Here are some examples…
When it was first suggested to combine antibody therapy with chemotherapy, I thought it was a crazy idea. We need the immune system to help antibodies work and chemotherapy is known to suppress the immune system. Nevertheless, I agreed to move ahead with such studies. , . Iowa was part of the first studies to look at this approach which we now know can work well in many cancers and are now part of standard therapy.
Many research groups, including my own, have been intrigued by the potential of retargeting killer T lymphocytes, a white blood cell, to kill cancer cells. Initial clinical studies exploring this approach were negative. Now, after 20 years of research, studies based on this concept are finally showing promise including use of bifunctional antibodies and of T cells genetically modified to attack the cancer cells (so-called Chimeric Antigen Receptors or CARs).
Finally, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could design a virus that would attack cancer cells but not normal cells? As with the other examples outlined above, initial trials exploring such “oncolytic viruses” were discouraging. On the other hand, these studies taught us much about the biology of both cancer and viruses. Investigators persisted, and there is now growing evidence that such treatment may be effective.
Persistence can pay off. Research hypotheses can also fail and not be worth pursuing. How do we know if a failure represents a temporary detour or a true dead end? First, we look at the science on which the proposed approach to treatment is based. Sometimes, the science lags behind the ability to conceive of a practical application, and the science needs to advance before a concept can be applied effectively to cancer treatment. We also look carefully at the results of the unsuccessful clinical studies . While the primary therapeutic end point of such clinical trials may not have been met, there are often hints in the correlative science that speak to how the treatment can be modified and improved. Following these hints can help move the treatment forward.
So, when a young researcher tells me she has decided not to pursue an intriguing idea because a senior advisor said it has been studied already and has already proven to be a failed hypothesis, I advise her to think again. On the other hand, maybe she should not listen to me either, since I know I am not as smart as I think I am.