There is a good rule of thumb – whenever a headline asks a question, especially a provocative question, the answer is usually no. This article is no exception. This is a particular type of scam, or at least very misleading claim, that I encounter often. Usually I am sent an e-mail asking hopefully, even if skeptically, if the claims being made are true. This falls under the category of “overhyped corporate promotion”.

Sure, all companies do this to some degree. It’s called advertising. But at some fuzzy point, overhyped advertising claims become fraudulent. Sometimes the goal is to sell product, and sometimes it is to attract investors (or both). In extreme cases, like the now infamous Theranos, the claims are not only overhyped, they are implausible and ultimately illusory. In still other, more extreme cases, like the Steorn company and their Orbo free energy device claim, it seems the scam was to endlessly attract investors, without ever producing a viable product.

Where are we on this spectrum with the current claims? Let’s start with the claim:

“We believe we will offer in a year’s time a complete cure for cancer,” said Dan Aridor, of a new treatment being developed by his company, Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies Ltd. (AEBi)

Impressed? But wait, there’s more:

“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,” Aridor said. “Our solution will be both generic and personal.”

There is another rule of thumb that sounds like a cliché, but holds some wisdom – if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. In the realm of corporate promotion, beware claims of the implausibly perfect product. In this case Aridor (son of Arithor – OK, I may have just made that up) is claiming to have a cure for all cancers that is low cost, rapid, and with minimal side effects. It also whitens your teeth and perfumes your flatulence.

We have discussed here many times before that the “cure for all cancers” is an inherently implausible claim. Cancer is not one disease, but a category including many related diseases. Different cancers involve different tissues, different mutations, and different behaviors and features. While some treatments are effective against a variety of cancers, there is no one treatment effective against all cancers (let alone a cure for all cancers).

Further, as a general rule, the greater the advance itself the more implausible, even if the claim itself is not impossible. This is due to a few reasons, primarily that complex advances take time. With mature, robust areas of research, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Advance is made in a continuous series of baby-steps. They add up over time (as I discussed recently) but the probability of a giant leap is inherently implausible – and the greater the leap the greater the implausibility.

It simply takes a lot of time and a lot of research to put all the pieces together. Also, it is very unlikely that one lab will make all of the necessary advances all by themselves. The basic science would likely be a collaboration of many labs, publishing over years, leaving a paper trail that any expert could follow. There would be presentations at meetings, and the basic science would be discussed in the community.

The world is investing billions of dollars a year in cancer research (the NIH alone invests about $5 billion per year). Any clinical advance that was ripe because the basic science was there would likely be researched by many labs.

So any claim that would require not just one step, but multiple steps, happening largely in secret in one lab over a relatively short period of time stretches credulity.

We can also ask – how does Aridor know that his alleged treatment will have the features he boasts? In other words – where’s the beef? So far all they have are mouse studies, nothing yet in humans. That is very thin gruel given the boastful claims he is making. That is considered pre-clinical evidence, not even preliminary clinical evidence. In other words – he is just largely making up all those claims. He may suspect that his treatment will be as effective as he says, but he really has no idea.

It will take years, perhaps decades, to really know what the potential of this new approach is. It will have to be studied for years in each type and stage of cancer. Making claims about effectiveness and side effects now is pure speculation. Saying you have a potential “cure for all cancer” is downright irresponsible.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at the actual science. The treatment is based on the technology of phage display, which was the recent recipient of a Nobel Prize. Phages are viruses that attack bacteria, and can be made to display antibodies on their outside. AEBi claims that they can use this technology to instead display small peptides. With this they create what they call MuTaTo – multi-targeted toxins. They have three peptide toxins on one phage, each of which targets an aspect of a cancer cell without targeting healthy cells, and further they can target the cancer stem cells to prevent recurrence.

This all sounds fine, a reasonable basis for cancer research. The problem is extrapolating from the basic idea to implausible clinical claims. Such hot ideas in cancer research come up all the time, and if you recklessly extrapolate from basic mechanisms and assume maximal effectiveness, you could make a convincing-sounding argument that any of them are a “cure for cancer”. But so far, that never turns out to be the case. Cancer has always proven to be more difficult than such optimistic predictions assumed. Many of them turn into viable cancer treatments, adding another incremental baby step to cancer survival, but none of them are ultimate cures.

Aridor keep saying that his treatments “should” do this or that, but he is just making unrealistically optimistic assumptions. He also appears to be assuming that because he can imagine something, it will work out. We will just find targets that are unique to the cancer cells, leaving healthy cells unharmed. Really? That is the basis of pretty much all cancer treatments, and yet they all have side effects, sometimes severe.

Another example is the multi-targeting to increase effectiveness and reduce the emergence of resistance. He states this as if it is a new idea, when it is already the basis of most cancer treatment. That is why multiple chemotherapeutic agents are often used at the same time. That does increase effectiveness and reduce resistance, but it does not eliminate resistance. The only new idea I see here is the use of modified phage display to deliver toxins. Otherwise, he is just stating basic principles of cancer treatment that are already standard as if they are new and as if they are silver bullets that will magically produce the perfect cancer treatment.

It is not even clear at this point if this technology will work, let alone be the Holy Grail of cancer treatments. Hopefully it will work wonderfully, and add to our armamentarium of anti-cancer treatments, adding another incremental advance.

Oh but wait – here is a study from 2002 titled: “Tumor cell-targeting by phage-displayed peptides“. Putting “cancer” and “phage-displayed peptides” into PubMed resulted in 253 results, and looking through them they mostly look relevant, and going back to 2001. So this idea is at least 18 years old, and is being researched in labs all over the world.

So really they are just taking already off-the-shelf technology, rebranding it as their own, perhaps making some incremental changes, and then making ridiculously overhyped claims about their “breakthrough.”

To be clear, phage display is a great technology, and using it to target cancer cells is a great idea and an active area of research. But as you can see, it has already been researched for the last 18+ years. That is how long it takes to develop a new technology into a viable treatment.

Not specifically referencing Aridor or AEBi, but you can see how easy it is for a company do a little research to find some cutting-edge technology that the public is not generally familiar with, and then wrap some extreme claims around that technology, promising some new product or treatment. You can even cite the published research to apparently support your claims. It all sounds like cutting edge technology, but it is a Potemkin village. It is a clever type of pseudoscience that can be very effective. It takes a high degree of specific scientific knowledge, and perhaps even the ability to search and understand the technical literature, to see through the deception.

That is how Theranos was able to build an illusory company valued at $10 billion before the house of cards collapsed. But again – that is only the most famous and extreme example, there are many smaller examples all along the spectrum from overhyped but legitimate to pure scam.

The lesson is to be skeptical of any claims for a breakthrough, and the greater the claims the greater should be your skepticism. Amazing advances do not come out of nowhere, and usually if the basic science is there, multiple companies will be exploiting it. Beware Holy Grail perfect products that just seem too good to be true. You will never go wrong being skeptical of hyped claims.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.