An Open Letter to Berkeley Lab: Thanks for the Funny Research About Squeezing Breasts and Cancer

Dear Daniel Fletcher, Gautham Venugopalan and Sarah Yang, Media Relations,

Thank you for your release reporting the FASCINATING detail on the research  Dr. Fletcher and Mr. Venugopalan presented at at the American Society for Cell Biology in San Francisco.

Who knew that mechanical pressure alone apparently can revert and stop the out-of-control growth of cancer cells?

“Compression, in and of itself, is not likely to be a therapy,” cautioned Daniel Fletcher, professor of bioengineering at Berkeley and faculty scientist at the Berkeley Lab, in the statement. “But this does give us new clues to track down the molecules and structures that could eventually be targeted for therapies.”

For the experiment, scientists grew gelatin-encased malignant breast epithelial cells in flexible silicone chambers. The squishy housing allowed researchers to apply compression in the early stages of cell growth, the university said. The compressed malignant cells grew more organized and healthy-looking compared with the uncompressed malignant cells.”

Interesting! Novel!

But the true stroke of genius was the excellent word choice: SQUEEZE!

Yes! Because otherwise who would care? So thank you for the headline:

Squeezing Malignant Breast Cancer Cells Could Help Them Return To Normal, Study Says”

…and the first sentence:

Researchers at the UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have put the squeeze — literally — on malignant mammary cells to guide them back into a normal growth pattern.

Who would have thought to work in “squeeze” with a news item about breast cancer research. It’s as if the Algonquin Round Table has launched a California franchise. Awesome, just awesome.

Some news outlets went with a “straight” account:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/18/squeezing-breast-cancer-cells-compression_n_2323376.html

However, many other outlets could not resist. Do a simple Google search to see how your research has now been reduced to the level of a bunch of sixth grade boys looking at Playboy.  For your reference, here is a screen grab from my Facebook page.

Science marches on...

Science marches on…

Metastatic breast cancer claims 40,000 lives annually in the U.S. As one of 155,000 U.S. people living with MBC, I have a vested interest in educating people about this incurable disease and urging them to support research that helps people with advanced breast cancer live longer.

For the last 20 years, NCI’s Dr. Patricia Steeg has been researching how cancer cells from the primary tumor in the breast travel to vital organs, in particular the brain. Dr. Steeg identified the first cancer suppressor gene and has done pioneering work on brain metastasis.

Do you think we’ll be seeing ha-ha, funny, funny Facebook posts citing Dr. Steeg’s work?

This past fall, Dr. Steeg spoke to about 150 people with metasatic breast cancer at the Metastatic Breast Cancer Network’s annual conference in Chicago. In her presentation on “Research on Treatment to Contain Metastatic Growth,” she made a case for redesigning clinical trials to do what she termed “phase II randomized metastasis-prevention trials.” Currently, phase I and phase II clinical trials are done in patients with advanced, refractory metastatic cancer, patients who have had many therapies. In phase II trials, researchers typically are trying to determine if a drug shrinks metastases.

“But a drug that prevents metastasis may not shrink a large, refractory tumor,” said Steeg. “It has a different mechanism of action that is not picked up by the clinical trial system.” (Steeg referenced a perspective piece, “The Right Trials,” she wrote for Nature this past May: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v485/n7400_supp/full/485S58a.html)

After Dr. Steeg finshed speaking, every single person in that auditorium stood up and offered a thundering ovation. That’s how important her work is.

Have you heard about it? Would you share it with a friend?

If only Dr. Steeg had made some reference to squeezing breasts, second base, boobies, ta tas, and, God help us, sweater kittens. Because that seems to be the only way to capture the general American public’s interest in a terrible disease.

You may say you have no control over how the news is reported or repurposed. That’s true. And I acknowledge in some respects you are truly blameless. Two decades of dedicated pinking–from chicken buckets to perfume for “The Cause” have somehow taken breast cancer from the Big C to the boffo laugh.

But, even a boilerplate statement acknowledging the stark reality that metastatic breast cancer is incurable and remains woefully underfunded  and statement from Dr. Fletcher or Mr. Venugopalan   asking reporters to avoid the easy jokes, the temptation to turn this into a ha-ha. funny news story of the day would be something.

It’s not too late. Get your head out of your petri dish and issue a follow-up press release.

Tell them breast cancer is not funny.

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5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Berkeley Lab: Thanks for the Funny Research About Squeezing Breasts and Cancer

  1. Jody Schoger says:

    Katherine,

    You squeezed everything possible from this “revolutionary” finding from, ahem, the marketing department of Berkley labs. Obviously something went awry in the selection process for this conference.

    And hearing about Pat Steeg always makes my day. Since the Huffington post is not a traditional news outlet per se but a gigantic blogging platform I suggest you submit this post or another one about her incredible work to them to counteract this “squeeze those cells” malarkey.

    Happy holiday,

    Jody

  2. katherinembc says:

    Jody, you have written about a lot of research and are a regular attendee at ASCO and SABC. My question is: Is this research newsworthy? Dr. Fletcher concedes “compression” aka “squeezing” is not likely to be a therapy, ever.

    Perhaps it will offer some insights down the road, but it does not seem to me that there is much to get excited about. What does this research mean, exactly?

    Good suggestion about Dr. Steeg, Thanks.

  3. This research, to me? From one standpoint, zzzz. I don’t know what they were looking for going in. But the fact that they published their own news release about it; and not that any science reporter found it worth covering, tells us a lot. Good science writers ignore the press machines of the conferences and seek out their own stories, tho there is less of this now with shrinking news budgets. This bothers me as much as the marketing spin put on this “research.”

    I think there is more than enough work that IS leading to in the words of their own researcher – “…new clues to track down the molecules and structures that could eventually be targeted for therapies.” to render this work null. It’s not likely to go anywhere for anyone other than Berkley labs. It sounds like a way for them to market their brand.

    SADLY.

    Thanks for the chat.

  4. Touche Katherine! TOUCHE!!!!

    Beyond that… I think you covered it and Jody did a fine job of adding the finishing touches.

    Merry, happy and all that good stuff,

    AnneMarie

  5. Katherine, Thanks for calling out the malarky and pointing to the important work of Pat Steeg. When I saw the imagery associated with reports of the study, I was aghast. Even though I know, and have studied, and analyzed, and super-analyzed, hundreds of breast cancer related ads and campaigns, I am still dumbfounded at how easily and thoughtlessly marketing machines press on to sensationalize this horrible disease. I do hope Cosmopolitan publishes your post, and that it encourages people to think (before, during, and after) they develop their press materials. — Gayle Sulik

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