Mole rats are newsworthy. They look weird. They live in colonies like ants. And they don’t seem to get cancer. That’s why we’ve written before about interesting laboratory research into their potential cancer-busting properties.

But we think some of today’s headlines about research on mole rats have gone too far and give a false impression of a non-existent “breakthrough” towards a cancer “cure”.

First, a general point: despite what countless headlines would have us believe, science and medicine rarely progress though such dramatic ‘breakthroughs’, but rather through the steady, persistent drip-drip of good quality research.

Like water on a stone, this continuous flow of research slowly washes away the mystery, and uncovers new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat disease.

Early lab research

More specifically, as far as we can tell, today’s headlines refer to research that was made public in August last year by scientists in Israel (or perhaps to further unpublished work – we can’t tell).

It’s fascinating stuff, but it certainly doesn’t justify claims that “a cure for ALL [emphasis by the Express] cancers is on the way”.

The work is all lab-based and shows mole rats are resistant to things that would normally cause cancer in mice and other rodents. It also shows human cancer cells grown in the lab alongside mole rat cells – or treated with extracts from the cells – are killed off.

That’s all great. But the research is still very far from being developed into a treatment for people, let alone a cure for all cancers.

Overblown headlines

We love to see interesting research being discussed in the media. And lots of the lab work on blind mole rats and naked mole rats is genuinely intriguing.

But we’re concerned such overblown headlines could give cancer patients false hope of a wonder treatment that’s just around the corner.

Or – equally damaging – such recurrent headlines could have the opposite effect of undermining public’s confidence in cancer research. By creating the impression of breakthroughs that then don’t quickly materialise into cures, such stories create an impression that research isn’t working.

The fact of the matter is that cancer research is full of promising leads that end up at a dead end. That’s science. But along the way we learn new things, and build our knowledge of cancer.

And, slowly but surely, we make progress. It’s thanks to research that cancer survival rates have doubled over the past 40 years.

We don’t yet know where this research could lead – but we do know it’s far too early to start talking about cures.

Blind mole rat image from Wikimedia commons