For a new cancer drug to come to market it has to be thoroughly tested in clinical trials to prove not only that it works but also that it’s better than the current treatment option and safe to administer to patients

If you’re going to do it, do it properly. It sounds like something your mother would say but it’s also a fundamental rule followed by science. It’s the foundation of the scientific method and ensures that the acquisition of new knowledge is based on evidence and open to correction in the face of new findings. Recent Breakthrough-funded research from our scientists in Edinburgh highlights the modern value of the scientific method.

The birth of a controlled experiment

The scientific method can be traced all the way back to the 7th century BC where scripture tells a story about Daniel – the man who was cast into the lion’s den for praying to God – and his formulation of a scientific experiment. In Daniel’s story it describes how he set out to test which was more beneficial – a diet of meat and wine or a diet of vegetables and water. His experiment laid out some of the key principles of the scientific method including control (meat and wine) and experimental (vegetable and water) groups, observations taken before and after the experiment, and using similar test subjects in each group to reduce any variation from other factors which could influence the result.

Through the ages this method has been replicated, improved and built upon but the fundamental principles remain the same.

The modern method

For a new cancer drug to come to market it has to be thoroughly tested in clinical trials to prove not only that it works but also that it’s better than the current treatment option and safe to administer to patients. However, before a drug even gets this far it has to undergo rigorous laboratory testing, from throwing it on cells in a dish to giving it to mice. The scientific method enshrines these experiments and what we learn from these tests ultimately informs the best use of the drug in humans and helps identify which patients are likely to benefit.

But sometimes what we learn from laboratory studies doesn’t always translate to what happens in humans. It’s times like this when the scientific method really shines. One of its key principles is that hypotheses can be proven and disproven by the addition of new evidence. Sometimes what we find out later down the line can be surprising but that’s what makes science so exciting.

Breakthrough’s research into ductal and lobular breast cancer

An example of this can be seen in the new research published recently by Breakthrough funded researchers in Edinburgh. Their study investigated how the two main types of breast cancer, ductal and lobular, responded on a molecular level when treated with a drug called letrozole. Importantly, they used patient tumour samples taken by biopsy whereas previous comparisons had only been done in laboratory studies. The team took samples from patients before they started treatment, then two weeks and three months into treatment and after treatment had ended, in order to get a comprehensive understanding of how these different types of breast cancers respond to the same treatment.

Ductal and lobular breast cancer look very different down the microscope and also have different molecular characteristics which are used to define them. It’s expected then that their molecular response to a treatment may also be different, something which has actually been shown previously in laboratory studies. However, this new study from the team in Edinburgh turns this notion on its head as they found that the way the two types respond is virtually identical throughout treatment.

Personalised medicine

This is really interesting because it means that as we move towards ever increasing levels of personalised medicine – treatments selected on the basis of the tumours’ characteristics – it’s vital that we understand how these tumours respond to treatment so that the right drugs are selected for each patient. This research shows that it may not be as simple as we originally thought and that even two tumours which look very different could benefit from the same treatment.

The scientific method makes certain that science is never closed off from the alternative theory. Proof in science is not the final say and we have to be willing to accept that new evidence can completely change what we once knew. The research mentioned here is by no means a finding which radically shifts our perception but it does showcase how even small rebuttals have the potential to change how we approach the next question. As the astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan elegantly put it:

”Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking.”

Recently there has been increasing exposure of shortcomings in the scientific method. Falsified papers have made their way into top scientific journals and organisations are carrying out research to evaluate how accurate science in the public domain really is.

What are your thoughts on the current state of scientific integrity and what do you think needs to change? Leave your comments below.

About the author

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Dr Matthew Lam is a Senior Research Communications Officer at Breast Cancer Now. He has a PhD in breast cancer research and becomes enraged in the presence of pseudoscience.