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Luc Montagnier and the Nobel Disease

Few awards in anything have the cachet and respect the Nobel Prizes in various disciplines possess. In my specialty, medicine, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is quite properly viewed as the height of achievement. In terms of prestige, particularly in the world of science, the Nobel Prize is without peer. To win the Nobel Prize in Medicine or another scientific field, a scientist must have made a discovery considered fundamentally important to the point that it changes the way we think about one aspect of science or medicine. Winning the Nobel Prize in a scientific field instantly elevates a scientist from whatever he or she was before to the upper echelons of world science.

So how, one might ask, is it that seemingly so frequently Nobel Laureates embrace crankery or pseudoscience in their later years? They call it the Nobel Disease, and, indeed, it’s a term listed in the Skeptics’ Dictionary (where the term is attributed to me based on this post about Linus Pauling from four years ago, but I can’t claim credit for coining the term; it existed before I wrote that post) and Rational Wiki, complete with examples. What inspired me to take on this topic, dusting off some old knowledge and writings, is that we apparently have a new victim of the Nobel Disease. Well, perhaps “new” is not the right word, but he is the most recent example. I’m referring to Luc Montagnier, who with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of HIV in 2008.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take Montagnier very long to devolve into crankery. Until 2009, to be precise. Since then, Montagnier has embraced concepts like DNA teleportation and ideas very much like homeopathy. And then, just last month, his journey to the dark side was complete. Yes, Luc Montagnier presented at the yearly quackfest I discussed last week, the one in which there was much enthusiasm among the attendees for a treatment that involves administering bleach enemas to autistic children. He presented at Autism One, a coup that caused much rejoicing in the antivaccine movement.

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Posted in: Cancer, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Another cancer tragedy in the making

I despise cancer quacks.

I know, I know. My saying that is probably akin to saying that the sun rises in the east, water is wet, and Donald Trump’s hair resembles nothing in nature. You know, brain-meltingly obvious statements. It’s true, though. I despise cancer quacks. It doesn’t much matter to me whether the quack is a true believer or a calculating con artist, the end result is the same: People with cancer throwing their one best chance to survive away chasing pixie dust and promises of “natural” cures without the toxicity that is the unfortunate byproduct of the surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy that are the mainstays of our current armamentarium against cancer. I’m a cancer surgeon. This I cannot abide, which is part of the reason I became active promoting science-based medicine, started my other blog, and then was so eager to join up when the opportunity to join this blog presented itself four years ago.

It’s hard to blame patients, too. After all, as I’ve described so many times before, curing cancer is hard. Very hard. Cancer is complicated. Incredibly complicated. Quacks make it sound easy and simple. They postulate One True Cause of Cancer, and, as a result, often what they represent as the One True Cure for All Cancer. Faced with a life-threatening disease and the possibility of chemotherapy, surgery, and/or radiation therapy, patients are understandably frightened and, if they don’t have a scientific background, susceptible to the blandishments of quacks. That’s what happened to a patient I wrote about long ago, and that’s what happened to Kim Tinkham.

It’s also what is happening right now to a woman named Danielle, and, worse, she’s falling victim to the same cancer quack. Worse still, from my point of view, she’s blogging it.
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Posted in: Cancer, Health Fraud, Science and Medicine

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Dental X-rays and Brain Tumors — Oh My!

Fear sells, and the media loves it. If it’s scary, no matter how tenuous the link or inconclusive the study, you are going to see it on the news. How many times over the years have you heard that your cell phone might give you brain cancer, even though it never turns out to be true? Once such a claim is made, however, it becomes lodged into the public’s psyche and is accepted as true, even after refutations and retractions are published (see Wakefield, Andrew).

And so it is with x-rays. The latest scare du jour, a recent study out of Yale that claims to show a correlation between dental x-rays and intracranial meningioma — the most common brain tumor and usually benign — has been enjoying widespread attention in newspapers and on the evening news. We don’t know if it will be on Dr. Oz, because we can’t bring ourselves to watch that show, but we feel the chances are good. Other alt-medders will no doubt have collective woogasms over the story and will further incite fear and mistrust into the doctor-patient relationship. In fact, the Mercola website wasted no time in weighing in:

While this study does not necessarily establish causation between dental X-rays and tumors, previous research has also implicated dental X-rays in the development of thyroid cancer, and research clearly shows this type of radiation is not harmless…

Typical alarmist fear-mongering. When has any health care professional claimed that radiation is harmless? This is not cutting edge research; Wilhelm Röntgen, the discoverer of x-rays in 1895 and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1901 for his research in the field, advocated the use of lead aprons for protection from the ionizing radiation way back when. Further, trying to lump one study linking dental x-rays to meningioma to another study linking them to thyroid cancer is taking quite the kitchen sink approach. But if there are multiple alleged possible potential theoretical adverse effects from our dental death rays, it must be true, right?

Well, not so fast. We’re dentists, and unlike many knee-jerkers, we’ve actually read the study and would like to offer a little bit of insight into this before everyone panics. In fact, with respect to Letterman, we’d like to offer our Top Three Reasons Not To Panic:
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Posted in: Cancer, Dentistry, Epidemiology, Medical Academia, Science and the Media

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Supplements and cancer prevention

The bloggers here have been very critical of a law passed nearly 20 years ago, commonly referred to as the DSHEA of 1994. The abbreviation DSHEA stands for about as Orwellian a name for a law as I can imagine: the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act. Of course, as we’ve pointed out time and time again, the DSHEA is not about health, and it’s certainly not about education. Indeed, perhaps my favorite description of this law comes from our very own Peter Lipson, who refers to it as a “travesty of a mockery of a sham.” Rather, it’s about allowing supplement manufacturers and promoters of so-called “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM, with or without a preceding “s,” depending on your taste) who do not want pesky things like government laws and regulations to interfere with their selling of pseudoscience to market various compounds as “dietary supplements” with near-impunity. As Harriet Hall put it so accurately, the DSHEA is “a stealth weapon that allows the sale of unproven medicines just as long as you pretend they are not medicines.”

The DSHEA accomplishes this by making a seemingly reasonable distinction between food and medicine and twisting it in such a way that allows manufacturers to label all sorts of botanicals and various other compounds, many of which have substances in them with pharmacological activity, and sell them as “supplements” without prior approval by the FDA before marketing. As long as the manufacturer is careful enough not to make health claims that are too specific, namely that the supplement can diagnose or treat any specific disease, and sticks to “structure-function” statements (“it boosts the immune system!”), almost anything goes, particularly if a Quack Miranda Warning is included.

Not surprisingly, given what a big business supplements have become in this country largely due to the DSHEA, manufacturers and CAM advocates fight tooth and nail against any attempt to update the DSHEA to correct some of its more unfortunate consequences. Led by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who together make up a bipartisan tag-team in defense of the supplement industry and do their best to block any effort to increase its regulation by the FDA. We saw that most recently when Arizona Senator John McCain, of all people, introduced a bill in 2010 to try to tighten up the DSHEA and was thoroughly slapped down by Orrin Hatch. More recently, not satisfied with how good things are for the supplement industry, another Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz reached across the aisle to Jared Polis, teaming up to introduce the Free Speech About Science Act, which basically seeks to allow the supplement industry to make more liberal claims about its products. All it will need is a “peer-reviewed” paper to support it (Mark and David Geier would do!), and you can claim almost anything. Anything to grow the supplement industry, which is currently around $30 billion a year.

That’s why it’s critical, from time to time, to look at actual evidence, and just last week Maria Elena Martinez, PhD, of the University of California San Diego, and co-authors did in a commentary published online in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute entitled Dietary Supplements and Cancer Prevention: Balancing Potential Benefits Against Proven Harms.
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation

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The problem with preclinical research? Or: A former pharma exec discovers the nature of science

If there’s one thing about quacks, it’s that they are profoundly hostile to science. Actually, they have a seriously mixed up view of science in that they hate it because it doesn’t support what they believe. Yet at the same time they very much crave the imprimatur that science provides. When science tells them they are wrong, they therefore often try to attack the scientific method itself or claim that they are the true scientists. We see this behavior not just in quackery but any time scientific findings collide with entrenched belief systems, for example, medicine, evolution, anthropogenic global warming, and many others. So it was not surprising that a rant I saw a few weeks ago by a well-known supporter of pseudoscience who blogs under the pseudonym of Vox Day caught my interest. Basically, he saw a news report about an article in Nature condemning the quality of current preclinical research. From it, he draws exactly the wrong conclusions about what this article means for medical science:

Fascinating. That’s an 88.6 percent unreliability rate for landmark, gold-standard science. Imagine how bad it is in the stuff that is only peer-reviewed and isn’t even theoretically replicable, like evolutionary biology. Keep that figure in mind the next time some secularist is claiming that we should structure society around scientific technocracy; they are arguing for the foundation of society upon something that has a reliability rate of 11 percent.

Now, I’ve noted previously that atheists often attempt to compare ideal science with real theology and noted that in a fair comparison, ideal theology trumps ideal science. But as we gather more evidence about the true reliability of science, it is becoming increasingly obvious that real theology also trumps real science. The selling point of science is supposed to be its replicability… so what is the value of science that cannot be repeated?

No, a problem with science as it is carried out by scientists in the real world doesn’t mean that religion is true or that a crank like Vox is somehow the “real” intellectual defender of science. Later, Vox doubles down on his misunderstanding by trying to argue that the problem in this article means that science is not, in fact, “self-correcting.” This is, of course, nonsense in that the very article Vox is touting is an example of science trying to correct itself. Be that at it may, none of this is surprising, given that Vox has demonstrated considerable crank magnetism, being antivaccine, anti-evolution, an anthropogenic global warming denialist, and just in general anti-science, but he’s not alone. Quackery supporters of all stripes are jumping on the bandwagon to imply that this study somehow “proves” that the scientific basis of medicine is invalid. A writer at Mike Adams’ wretched hive of scum and quackery, NaturalNews.com, crows:

Begley says he cannot publish the names of the studies whose findings are false. But since it is now apparent that the vast majority of them are invalid, it only follows that the vast majority of modern approaches to cancer treatment are also invalid.

But does this study show this? I must admit that it was a topic of conversation at the recent AACR meeting, given that the article was published shortly before the meeting. It’s also been a topic of e-mail conversations and debates at my very own institution. But do the findings reported in this article mean that the scientific basis of cancer treatment is so off-base that quackery of the sort championed by Mike Adams is a viable alternative or that science-based medicine is irrevocably broken?

Not so fast there, pardner…
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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Clinical Trials

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Cancer care in the U.S. versus Europe: Is more necessarily better?

The U.S. is widely known to have the highest health care expenditures per capita in the world, and not just by a little, but by a lot. I’m not going to go into the reasons for this so much, other than to point out that how to rein in these costs has long been a flashpoint for debate. Indeed, most of the resistance to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), otherwise known in popular parlance as “Obamacare,” has been fueled by two things: (1) resistance to the mandate that everyone has to buy health insurance, and (2) the parts of the law designed to control the rise in health care costs. This later aspect of the PPACA has inspired cries of “Rationing!” and “Death panels!” Whenever science-based recommendations are made that suggest ways to decrease costs by reevaluating screening tests or decreasing various tests and interventions in situations where their use is not supported by scientific and clinical evidence, whether by the government or professional societies, you can count on it not being long before these cries go up, often from doctors themselves.

My perspective on this issue is that we already “ration” care. It’s just that government-controlled single payer plans and hybrid private-public universal health care plans use different criteria to ration care than our current system does. In the case of government-run health care systems, what will and will not be reimbursed is generally chosen based on evidence, politics, and cost, while in a system like the U.S. system what will and will not be reimbursed tends to be decided by insurance companies based on evidence leavened heavily with business considerations that involve appealing to the largest number of employers (who, let’s face it, are the primary customers of health insurance companies, not individuals insured by their health insurance plans). So what the debate is really about is, when boiled down to its essence, how to ration care and by how much, not whether care will be rationed. Ideally, how funding allocations are decided would be based on the best scientific evidence in a transparent fashion.

The study I’m about to discuss is anything but the best scientific evidence.
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? (Revisited): Personalized medicine versus evolution

About a year ago, I addressed what might seem to the average reader to be a very simple question: Why haven’t we cured cancer yet? As I pointed out at the time, it’s a question that I sometimes even ask myself, particularly given that cancer has touched my life. Three years ago, my mother-in-law died of a particularly nasty form of breast cancer. Even though I am a breast cancer surgeon, I still wonder why there was nothing that could save her (and there still is nothing that could have saved her, if it existed then) from a decline over several months followed by an unpleasant death. Yet, as a cancer researcher, I do understand somewhat. A couple of years ago, I wrote in depth about the complexity of cancer from a science-based viewpoint, as compared, of course, to the incredibly simplistic view that many purveyors of alternative medicine quackery promote as being The One True Cause of Cancer. As I put it at the time, shamelessly stealing from Douglas Adams: Cancer is complicated. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly complicated it is. I mean, you may think algebra is complicated, but that’s just peanuts to cancer.

I saw more evidence of that at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting last week. In fact, if there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that developing personalized therapy for cancer is going to be a hell of a lot more difficult than we had ever suspected. Actually, it wasn’t just the AACR meeting that taught me this, but it’s as good a pretext as any to discuss some cool new science. I only wish it was science that pointed an obvious path forward to the development of personalized therapy. On the other hand, if it were easy then anyone could do the “personalized therapy for dummies” approach that, for example, Stanislaw Burzynski takes. Then there’s the even more ridiculously simplistic approach that certain practitioners of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) take.

So why haven’t we cured cancer yet? Again? One reason that I discussed last time I covered this topic concerns a study that used the latest next generation sequencing (NGS) techniques to sequence seven aggressive and advanced prostate cancers. I described the results as these genomes looking like someone threw a miniature grenade into the nucleus of a prostate epithelial cell. In other words, these are some really messed up genomes. (I wanted to use another word to describe it, but this is a family blog—sort of, anyway.) I used this example to explain once again that cancer is not a single disease. It’s hundreds of diseases. Although there are common themes in how cells become cancerous, such as loss of responsiveness to growth signals with a resultant ability to grow unchecked, evasion of programmed cell death (apoptosis), inducing the surrounding tissue to provide a blood supply (angiogenesis), evading the immune system, and invading the blood or lymphatic systems to travel elsewhere in the body and take up shop in other organs, such as liver, lung, or bone, individual cancers acquire these necessary (to the cancer) abilities through many different mechanisms. For this reason, it’s completely ridiculous to speak of a “cure for cancer.”

It’s also the reason I expressed skepticism when Steve Novella discussed a potential universal anti-cancer drug. Ditto when the press breathlessly reports studies suggesting a “universal cancer vaccine.” While these sorts of research findings are promising, they need to be put into perspective. We’ve seen their like many times before, and various cancers are still deadly diseases. In fact, my career intersected with this sort of hype back in the 1990s, when I studied combining angiogenesis inhibitors with radiation therapy in experimental models of cancer in mice. For a period of time in the late 1990s, I lived the hype. Then reality, as it always does, brought us all down to earth. Now, 15 years later, we know that angiogenesis inhibitors, although useful, are not any sort of “magic bullet” cure for all solid tumors. Like many advances before, they have now taken their place in the armamentarium of anticancer drugs, more important than some but not as important as others.

It’s even more complicated than that.

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Posted in: Basic Science, Cancer, Evolution

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Are Cell Phones a Possible Carcinogen? An Update on the IARC Report

EDITOR’S NOTE: Because I am at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Chicago, between the meetings, working on a policy statement, working on a manuscript, and various other miscellaneous tasks, I alas was unable to produce a post worthy of the quality normally expected by SBM readers. Fortunately, Lorne Trottier, who’s done a great job for us twice before, was able to step in again with this great post about “safe” cell phone cases. Speaking of the manufactroversy over whether cell phone radiation causes brain cancer, there’s a session at the AACR that I’ll have to try to attend entitled Do Cell Phones Cause Brain Cancer? Who knows? It might be blogging material. I also might post something later that those of you who know of my not-so-super-secret other blog might have seen before. However, I often find it useful to see how a different audience reacts. Now, take it away, Lorne…

In May of last year, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a press release (1) in which it classified cell phones as Category 2B, which is “possibly carcinogenic to humans“. This ruling generated headlines world wide. Alarmist groups seized on it and now regularly cite this report to justify their concerns for everything ranging from cell phones to WiFi and smart meters.

IARC maintains a list of 269 substances in the 2B category, most of which are chemical compounds. A number of familiar items are also included in this list: coffee, pickled vegetables, carbon black (carbon paper), gasoline exhaust, talcum powder, and nickel (coins). The IARC provides the following definition of the 2B category (2  P 23): “This category is used for agents for which there is limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans and less than sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals. It may also be used when there is inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity in humans but there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in experimental animals“.

The Category 2B “possible carcinogen” classification does not mean that an agent is carcinogenic. As Ken Foster of the University of Pennsylvania pointed out to me. “Their conclusion is easy to misinterpret.” “Saying that something is a “possible carcinogen” is a bit like saying that someone is a “possible shoplifter” because he was in the store when the watch was stolen. The real question is what is the evidence that cell phones actually cause cancer, and the answer is — none that would persuade a health agency.”

None the less this ruling was highly controversial. Expert groups of most of the world’s major public health organizations have taken the same position as the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) which had stated that (3  P 8): “It is concluded from three independent lines of evidence (epidemiological, animal and in vitro studies) that exposure to RF fields is unlikely to lead to an increase in cancer in humans“. The representative of the US National Cancer Institute walked out of the IARC meeting before the voting. The NCI issued a statement (4) quoting other studies stating that: “overall, cell phone users have no increased risk of the most common forms of brain tumors — glioma and meningioma“.

Immediately following the IARC decision the WHO issued a reassuring new Fact Sheet (5) on mobile phones and public health: “A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use”. Since this controversial IARC classification, several new papers have been published that substantially undermine the weak evidence on which the IARC based its assessment.

The evidence that IARC cited to support its assessment was poor to begin with. Their initial press release (1) was followed by a more complete report that was published in the July 1, 2011 issue of the Lancet Oncology as well as online (6). In this article, I will review the evidence cited by IARC in support of its conclusion. I will also review updates from new papers published over the past year that cast further doubt on IARC’s conclusion.
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Posted in: Cancer, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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A Universal Anti-Cancer Drug?

We frequently deal with fraud and quackery on this blog, because part of our mission is to inform the public about such things, and also they are great examples for explaining the difference between legitimate and dubious medical claims. It is always our goal not just to give a pronouncement about this or that therapy, but to work through the logic and evidence so that or readers will learn how to analyze claims for themselves, or at least know when to be skeptical.

One skepticism-inducing red flag is any treatment that claims to treat a wide range of ailments, especially if those ailments are known to have difference causes and pathophysiologies. Even claiming that one treatment might be effective against all cancer is dubious, because cancer is not one disease, but a category of disease. We are fond of pointing out that there are many types and stages of cancer, and each one requires individualized treatments. As an aside, it is ironic that CAM proponents often simultaneously tout how individualized their treatment approach is, but then claim that one product or treatment can cure all cancer. Meanwhile they criticize the alleged cookie-cutter approach of mainstream medicine, which is actually producing a more and more individualized (and evidence-based) approach to such things as cancer.

In any case – my immediate response to any article or website claiming to treat most or all cancer is to be highly skeptical, but I reserve final judgment until after I read through the details. What kinds of evidence are being presented to support the claims, and what are the alleged mechanisms of action? Are those making the claims being cautious like a scientist should, or are they being promotional like a used-car salesman?

A recent study claiming a potential treatment for many types of cancer has been making the rounds. The title of the article being circulated is, One Drug to Shrink All Tumors. What made me take immediate interest in this article was that it was not on a dubious website, sensational tabloid, or even mainstream news outlet, but on the news section of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) website. This is a report of serious medical research. The title, I suspect, is perhaps a bit more sensational than it otherwise would have been because of a geeky nod to the “one ring to bind them all” Lord of the Rings quote. Regardless of the source and the headline – what is the science here?

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Posted in: Cancer

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A surprising article about “integrative” medicine in The New England Journal of Medicine vs. “patient-centered” care

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) is published on Thursdays. I mention this because this is one of the rare times where my owning Mondays on this blog tends to be a rather large advantage. Fridays are rotated between two or three different bloggers, and, as awesome as they are as writers, bloggers, and friends, they don’t possess the rabbit-like speed (and attention span) that I do that would allow me to see an article published in the NEJM on Thursday and get a post written about it by early Friday morning. This is, of course, a skill I have honed in my not-so-super-secret other blogging identity; so if I owned the Friday slot I could pull it off. However, the Monday slot is good enough because I’ll almost always have first crack at juicy studies and articles published in the NEJM before my fellow SBM partners in crime, unless Steve Novella managed to crank something out for his own personal blog on Friday, curse him.

My desire to be the firstest with the mostest when it comes to blogging about new articles notwithstanding, as I perused the table of contents of the NEJM this week, I was shocked to see an article that made me wonder whether the editors at NEJM might just be starting to “get it”—just a little bit—regarding “integrative” medicine. As our very own Mark Crislip put it a little more than a week ago:

If you integrate fantasy with reality, you do not instantiate reality. If you mix cow pie with apple pie, it does not make the cow pie taste better; it makes the apple pie worse.

Lately, though, I’ve been more fond of a version that doesn’t use fancy words like “instantiate”:

If you integrate fantasy with reality, you don’t make the fantasy more real. You temporarily make your reality seem more fantasy-based, but reality always wins out in the end.

The part about the cow pie needs no change, although I think ice cream works a bit better than apple pie. Your mileage may vary. Feel free to make up your own metaphor inspired by Mark’s.

In any case, in the Perspective section, I saw three articles about “patient-centered” care:
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Posted in: Cancer, Diagnostic tests & procedures, Medical Academia, Medical Ethics

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