Health Matters | How Tata Memorial Centre’s Announcement of Rs 100 ‘Miracle Cancer Drug’ Turned into ‘Bitter Pill’ for Frantic Patients

Last week, a miracle pill promising to prevent cancer relapse was announced for just Rs 100. The true value of this pill should be considered nothing less than pure gold for cancer survivors who live with constant fear of it happening again.

The Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai has claimed to have discovered a novel nutraceutical that can prevent cancer relapse. Additionally, it has claimed to reduce the side effects of treatments like radiation and chemotherapy by 50 per cent.

Nutraceuticals are not drugs but refer to food or products that provide health benefits. The news spread rapidly so the oncologists started receiving calls from their patients inquiring about where and how to get the pill.

However, the reality is that the pill is at least 5 to 6 years away from reaching patients. And there’s a chance it may never reach patients. Why?

Like many other drugs in development, this pill has yet to undergo clinical trials on human beings. The results shared by doctors at Tata Memorial Centre are encouraging, but they are based on studies conducted on mice, not humans.

In reality, 90 per cent of positive outcomes from animal trials do not translate to success in human trials.

On February 25, just two days before the announcement of the miracle pill, the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, announced that its researchers have patented Indian spice-derived nanomedicines showing anti-cancer activity.

Therefore, such news is common as numerous other drugs or products show promise for curing or treating cancer. But they are still in the trial or development phase. Their release into the market depends on the positive collection of data regarding their effectiveness in the human body – the rate of which, unfortunately, is very low in the case of cancer treatment.

Experts are concerned that the premature announcement may have opened the door for impostors to sell pills under the guise of this pill. It’s understandable that patients and families, driven by desperation to find a solution, may fall prey to such schemes.

What the pill does

In the patient’s body when cancer cells die, they release tiny particles called Chromatin. These particles can move through the body’s bloodstream and turn healthy cells into cancerous ones by fusing with their chromosomes, potentially causing new tumours.

To fight this, doctors at Tata Memorial Centre gave mice pro-oxidant tablets containing resveratrol and copper. These tablets produce oxygen radicals, which can destroy the Chromatin particles. When taken orally, these tablets release oxygen radicals in the stomach, quickly entering the bloodstream. The oxygen radicals then eliminate the circulating Chromatin particles, preventing the spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body, known as metastasis.

According to the Cancer Statistics report, India has some of the highest cancer growth rates worldwide. The number of cancer cases rose by an average annual rate of 1.1-2 per cent from 2010 to 2019.

Cancers with the highest recurrence include brain cancer (Glioblastoma) which has almost 100% of patients witnessing relapse followed by ovarian cancer (85%), soft tissue sarcomas (50%), bladder cancer (50%), pancreatic cancer (36% to 46%), and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (30% to 40%).

Surprising step

Medical professionals and health reporters were taken aback by a surprising aspect—not the findings of the research claiming a Rs 100 cancer prevention cure, but rather how the esteemed Tata Memorial Centre could label a nutraceutical as a breakthrough pill without it having undergone human trials.

In fact, in a WhatsApp group of health reporters, everyone was puzzled as to why an institution like Tata Memorial Centre would engage in such clickbait tactics.

I posed the same question to several leading oncologists, and they speculate that the news may have been shared “out of excitement” regarding the research. Subsequently, the media hype unexpectedly transformed it into a major headline, catching Tata Memorial Centre off guard.

Sample this: Dr Prashant Mehta, programme director (lymphoid neoplasms and cellular therapy) at the medical oncology department of Faridabad-based Amrita Hospital told me that “there are times when researchers get very excited about pre-clinical findings or how well a strategy or a drug for cancer works in animals. At such times, we need to remain very cautious and exercise restraint about how much to share in the public domain.”

Academic forums would welcome such findings to be presented in meeting proceedings, Mehta said, but such findings are generally not the type released to the media, as most of the research done in animals (possibly 90 per cent) does not translate effectively in humans.

“It seems, in future, it will be prudent to wait for concrete scientific data in humans for all kinds of crucial research and then have scientific discussions first before we highlight findings to the masses,” he said.

Dr Sameer Rastogi, an oncologist at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, at first thought it was some “gimmick” but later realised that such an announcement had genuinely been made when he started getting calls from his patients.

“Upon the release of news about the Rs 100 pill, numerous patients reached out with hope, seeking guidance on its purchase. Unfortunately, I had to clarify that the research about this pill is still ongoing and is in the early stages,” he told News18 while adding that many drugs that succeed in animal studies fail to provide substantial clinical benefit in larger human cohorts. “It also remains to be seen what exact cancer would be best suited for such treatment.”

Rastogi who worked at Tata Memorial Centre for five years before joining AIIMS praised the research but added that the premature disclosure has also opened the door for fraudulent individuals to sell the pill. “Although Tata Memorial Centre with its scholarly team has conducted outstanding research with the staggering potential for becoming a treatment, it has also paved the way for impostors selling the pill or its ingredients,” he said.

Dr Prathamesh Pai, director, Punyashlok Ahilyadevi Holkar Head & Neck Cancer Institute in Solapur, Maharashtra, said that the public needs to be aware that “this is not a substitute for the current treatments which need to be continued to achieve the cure that we have achieved with these medications”.

Similarly, Dr Nanda Rajaneesh, visiting consultant, breast oncology and surgery at Sakra World Hospital in Bengaluru, wanted to apply caution. “Claims about the pill’s effectiveness in preventing cancer recurrence should be approached with caution until supported by clinical trial data,” she said.

In short, the announcement was way too premature. Though it’s good news, it’s not entirely good news just yet.

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