Paradigm Shifts

Scientific dogma in all disciplines is slow to change.

I am again reminded of this by the recent publication of a book by Dava Sobel, “A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos” about the life and times of Nicolaus Copernicus. I use the term “dogma” intentionally, for Copernicus lived in the tumultuous times of the Protestant religious movement. Thus, his revolutionary concept of a heliocentric (sun-centered) solar system clashed with both scientific and religious dogmas.

Copernicus himself, a polymath, was a linguist, astronomer and a physician. His original observations in 1514 so conflicted with existing thinking regarding the geocentric solar system, that his treatise on the topic wasn’t published until 1543 – just a year before he died.

Copernicus, Galileo and Giordano Bruno — who himself was burned at the stake in 1600 for having the temerity to suggest that there might be other solar systems in the universe — were all victims of prevailing thinking that would not and could not yield to the burgeoning new understanding contained within Copernicus’s carefully constructed view of the cosmos.

These experiences are instructive, for they shine the light of day upon dogma in contemporary science and medicine. Failed attempts to utilize human tissue for the study of tumor biology led to an entire generation of cancer researchers to erroneously dismiss this profoundly important field of endeavor. No amount of data or cogent scientific argument could dissuade these authorities from their “dogmatic” position that human tissue could not predict cancer response. When one colleague in the field compiled all of the existing data and showed in an analysis that patients who received assay-sensitive drugs responded statistically, significantly more often than those who received assay-resistant drugs (p= 0.00000001) it had absolutely no impact on the “experts” opinions.

Perhaps today, 500 years later, we can learn something from Copernicus and his experience with scientific dogma.

About Dr. Robert A. Nagourney
Dr. Nagourney received his undergraduate degree in chemistry from Boston University and his doctor of medicine at McGill University in Montreal, where he was a University Scholar. After a residency in internal medicine at the University of California, Irvine, he went on to complete fellowship training in medical oncology at Georgetown University, as well as in hematology at the Scripps Institute in La Jolla. During his fellowship at Georgetown University, Dr. Nagourney confronted aggressive malignancies for which the standard therapies remained mostly ineffective. No matter what he did, all of his patients died. While he found this “standard of care” to be unacceptable, it inspired him to return to the laboratory where he eventually developed “personalized cancer therapy.” In 1986, Dr. Nagourney, along with colleague Larry Weisenthal, MD, PhD, received a Phase I grant from a federally funded program and launched Oncotech, Inc. They began conducting experiments to prove that human tumors resistant to chemotherapeutics could be re-sensitized by pre-incubation with calcium channel blockers, glutathione depletors and protein kinase C inhibitors. The original research was a success. Oncotech grew with financial backing from investors who ultimately changed the direction of the company’s research. The changes proved untenable to Dr. Nagourney and in 1991, he left the company he co-founded. He then returned to the laboratory, and developed the Ex-vivo Analysis - Programmed Cell Death ® (EVA-PCD) test to identify the treatments that would induce programmed cell death, or “apoptosis.” He soon took a position as Director of Experimental Therapeutics at the Cancer Institute of Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. His primary research project during this time was chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He remained in this position until the basic research program funding was cut, at which time he founded Rational Therapeutics in 1995. It is here where the EVA-PCD test is used to identity the drug, combinations of drugs or targeted therapies that will kill a patient's tumor - thus providing patients with truly personalized cancer treatment plans. With the desire to change how cancer care is delivered, he became Medical Director of the Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Memorial in 2003. In 2008, he returned to Rational Therapeutics full time to rededicate his time and expertise to expand the research opportunities available through the laboratory. He is a frequently invited lecturer for numerous professional organizations and universities, and has served as a reviewer and on the editorial boards of several journals including Clinical Cancer Research, British Journal of Cancer, Gynecologic Oncology, Cancer Research and the Journal of Medicinal Food.

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