Stop the presses! Sharks do get cancer. This normally wouldn’t qualify as big medical news, and I barely noticed the item when it appeared not long ago in the New York Daily News. But think of the huge amount of mythology-and business-that has mushroomed out of a single, easy-to-grasp and, as it happens, false anecdote. If sharks are immune to cancer, wishful thinking went, they must make a protein or molecule that prevents cancer from developing. From this appealing little fiction emerged a thriving branch of alternative medicine: the use of shark cartilage to treat cancer.
It’s easy to dismiss the shark-cartilage hypothesis as fairy-tale science. But appealing stories are nonetheless an integral part of the research process, as Peter Medawar shrewdly observed in his book Pluto’s Republic. Scientific theories, he wrote, “begin, if you like, as stories, and the purpose of the critical or rectifying episode in scientific reasoning is precisely to find out whether or not these stories are stories about real life.”Nowadays, telling a good story-whether it holds up or not-has become a big part of contemporary biotech and pharma.
The “story” is a kind of simple, declarative, trademark narrative that creates a feel-good association between a hypothesis, product or company and the consuming public. Those consumers need not buy medicine at the pharmacy. They may instead buy stock or, in the case of venture capitalists, “buy” the story of a startup company by providing seed money and other forms of capital investment.
The story has long been a feature of the biotech and pharmaceutical business. The writer Barry Werth formalized it as a fundamental component of biotech entrepreneurship in his book The Billion-Dollar Molecule, an account of “rational” drug discovery at Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge,Mass. In California, Shaman Pharmaceuticals always had one of the best stories in the business; inspired by the examples of aspirin and digitalis, Shaman’s declared mission was to discover new medicines in natural compounds derived from plants from the rainforest. After several rounds with the Food and Drug Administration, Shaman transformed itself several years ago into a company primarily devoted to dietary supplements.