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Cancer-killing Waves and the Politics of Research

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May. 16, 2012 — My music professor thinks he’s found a cure for cancer. And he can’t wait to tell you about it.

Anthony Holland, a composer and electronic music guru at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., developed the idea of bombarding cancer cells with electromagnetic waves — and thus destroying them — after reading about the efforts of American inventor Royal Rife (Rife initially proposed the idea in the 1930s, though his work was later discredited by the medical community). Several years ago, Holland established a research project with Jonathan Brody, a former student who is now a molecular biologist at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Early results were promising, but the relationship became strained. Holland formed a non-profit company to advance the idea and began seeking to develop relationships with investigators elsewhere.

I knew nothing about this until last month when I was driving across Pennsylvania listening to an old episode of NPR’s “This American Life” on my iPod (“So Crazy It Just Might Work,” which originally aired Nov. 11, 2011). You can imagine my surprise when I realized it was about my old professor. Anyway, I found myself absorbed in the story unfolding as I watched the sun set over the Alleghenies — and not just because I knew one of the primary players.

“This American Life” does an excellent job of telling the tale of “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” but for those who haven’t heard it, here’s how things went down: Over the course of about a year, Holland traveled to Philadelphia twice — the first time for two weeks, the other time for five — to perform a series of experiments with Brody in his lab. Though early results with pancreatic cancer and leukemia cells suggested that the approach could work, Brody came up with entirely different results in trying to reproduce them. He said he wanted to perform further experiments before publishing any of the findings. That was when Holland stopped taking his calls.

A year or so later, Brody traveled to Saratoga Springs to talk to Holland. Only then did he learn that the latter had set up the company and had been sharing the results obtained in Philadelphia with other research groups — he, Holland, felt the results sufficiently demonstrated the efficacy of the technique, and was frustrated by Brody’s insistence that they perform additional experiments. Brody was upset by this. Sharing these very preliminary results could harm his reputation, he said. And doing so without his consent was nothing short of a breach in trust. After a tense conversation, he and Holland parted ways.

I wish Prof. Holland success in his ongoing efforts. Because I’m grateful to him for shepherding me through some of the high/low points of my college career (I composed my “Two Pieces for Piano: (i) This One (ii) That One” in one of his classes; in another I wrote and recorded a song called “The Gary Bop,” which I sometimes fear is the only thing anyone will ever remember me for). But also because, well, who doesn’t want a cure for cancer?

That said, having worked in and written about the research community for more than a decade, I can maybe offer a bit of insight as to how to navigate the tricky terrain of conducting, sharing and publishing your findings. In short, if you want to do this without ruffling too many feathers, you’ll need to know two things:

First, generally speaking, researchers aren’t in it for the money or the groupies but rather — as corny as it sounds — for the love of science. By and large, as a result, getting the science right is paramount. Researchers take this stuff seriously; I’ve seen near-fistfights erupt at parties over some aspect of an equation scribbled on a cocktail napkin. Asking them to publish or even share findings before they think the findings are ready … well, it’s just not done.

This leads us to the second thing you’ll need to know: As a researcher, your reputation is your most important commodity. It’s your stock in trade, the one thing that will either propel you forward or stop you dead in your tracks. As such, you need to protect it, nurture it, make sure its many needs are taken care of.

The importance of reputation (and its big brother, prestige) manifests itself in myriad ways in the research community. We could talk for days about issues of authorship alone, and this is only one of the ways in which things can play out.

A quick, admittedly extreme example of another: Some years ago I wrote an article for BioPhotonics about a particular bit of research. I interviewed the senior author for the article — because he knew a thing or two about the study, but also because the first author had left the lab and neglected to tell anyone where he was going. Even after several phone calls and a bunch of Google searches, I had no idea how to contact him.

That is, until he read the article and contacted me. In an email in which he cc:ed the senior author, he explained in no uncertain terms why I should have interviewed him instead of the senior author (he ran the experiments; he wrote the paper itself). The latter responded with an equally pointed account of his own role in the study (“did [the first author] do the research in his apartment,” he asked rhetorically, “and with his own instruments?”). The emails flew back and forth — more or less ignoring me entirely — demonstrating an increasingly apparent animosity between the two but also underscoring the import attached to establishing and reinforcing one’s reputation.

Research is a complex endeavor, requiring strong experimental skills and theoretical knowledge as well as a certain doggedness and determination and an ability to maneuver the occasionally treacherous political landscape. If you’re diligent, though, and you understand the dynamics of the research community, you will survive. And you may even help to make the world a better place.
May 2012
Anthony HollandBasic Sciencecancer researchDifferent WavelengthsGary BoasGary Boas BlogJonathan BrodyNPRRoyal RifeSkidmore CollegeThis American LifeThomas Jefferson University

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