'They're Selling Unicorns': Israel Cancer Cure Claim Debunked by Experts

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Scientists in Israel have claimed the could be close to creating a cure for cancer. Getty Images

A team of scientists have said they are a year away from creating a "cure for cancer," prompting concern from experts who argue such claims are misleading and give false hope to patients and their loved ones.

Dan Aridor, of the firm Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies Ltd. (AEBi) behind the claims, told The Jerusalem Post: "We believe we will offer in a year's time a complete cure for cancer."

"Our cancer cure will be effective from day one, will last a duration of a few weeks and will have no or minimal side-effects at a much lower cost than most other treatments on the market," he said. "Our solution will be both generic and personal."

The treatment called MuTaTo (a portmanteau of multi-target toxin), is based around small fragments of proteins called peptides, designed to target cancer cells.

Dr. Ilan Morad, CEO of AEBi, which is based at the Weizmann Science Park, Israel, explained to The Jerusalem Post that some existing cancer treatments hone in on targets "on or in the cancer cell." But if the cell mutates, the treatment can become ineffective.

According to Morad, MuTaTo features a trio of peptides and a toxin that launch a three-pronged attack on cancer receptor proteins. The treatment could also have the potential to obliterate slow-growing cancer stem cells, which drugs designed to kill faster cells can fail to, he said.

"We believe we will offer in a year's time a complete cure for cancer," said Aridor.

Morad said the firm had carried out in-vitro and mice experiments, and is set to launch clinical trials.

It was not clear if their results had been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.

As news stories hailing the discovery spread online, other cancer experts urged the public to approach the report with caution.

Dr. Darren Saunders, a cancer biologist at the University of New South Wales, Australia, tweeted the researchers were "selling unicorns."

Please stop boosting the Israeli biotech claiming a cancer cure within a year. I can find very little published data, and the in vitro data on their website is underwhelming at best.
They’re selling unicorns.

— Dr Darren Saunders (@whereisdaz) January 29, 2019

Professor Lawrence Young, director of the Warwick Cancer Research Centre at the University of Warwick, U.K., told Newsweek he was concerned the team had not appeared to publish their data in a peer-reviewed journal, and that no clinical trials had been performed. Such trials are the first step outside of the laboratory in drug development.

Julia Frater, senior cancer information nurse at the charity Cancer Research UK, told Newsweek: "Unsubstantiated claims that there will be a cure for all cancers in a year are irresponsible and can be misleading for patients. This oversimplifies the fact that cancer is more than 200 different diseases, which behave differently and pose different treatment challenges. This is why finding a single cure for all cancers is unlikely."

Meanwhile, Professor Chris Bunce, who specializes in translational cancer biology at the University of Birmingham, U.K., told Newsweek that widely used treatments such as chemotherapy were previously regarded as "radical" and said the "technology being talked about here may be another step in that journey."

"But based on the information available the claim that it will provide a 'complete cure for cancer' is unfounded," he said.

Professor Justin Stebbing, an expert in cancer medicine and oncology at Imperial College London, U.K., told Newsweek that research at the Weizmann "is some of the best in the world." But he said he is yet to see any success with peptides treating any cancers.

"It isn't helpful to build up false hope, or talk of universal cancer cures when advances in knowledge are often made in small steps not giant leaps," he said.

Bunce explained why creating cancer drugs is so difficult. "On one hand cancer cells are not the big scary monsters that the general public believes them to be. More than 99.9 percent of the molecular processes within them are the same as the normal cells they originate from. So finding drugs that only target cancer cells is like finding needles in haystacks.

"The second problem is that within a given cancer there is complex variation and structure. There are cancer stem cells, and there are cancer subclones with different arrays of mutations and different levels of resistance to any given therapy. Painful lessons have been learned trying to exploit drugs that do not target founding mutations."

Even many hopeful laboratory findings cannot be translated into actual therapies that are successful, he said.

Bunce argued it is "unethical" to make overly optimistic claims that raise people's hopes and "discredit those of us who are working really hard to find better treatments."