No, squeezing breasts does not cure cancer

You may have seen reports that squeezing breasts cures cancer.

You may have seen these reports a few days ago, at such esteemed British purveyors of science news as the Daily Mail and Huffington Post UK (no, I haven’t linked to the articles). If you looked today, you may have seen similar reports, along with similarly tacky stock images of boobs being squeezed, at news sites and blogs all over the world.

You are probably not surprised to learn that squeezing breasts, pleasant as it might be, will have absolutely no effect on anybody’s cancer.

This is yet another case of the UK media finding a jokey angle on a small science story that sends it viral overseas. I’ve seen it happen many times (which is why I enjoyed this slightly bewildered article about the phenomenon), but this time it really bothered me. That’s because usually this cycle starts with research that was already a joke (or publicity stunt) to begin with, but in this case the story was about some real science.

I suppose I also took it a bit personally because I was involved in publicising the particular nugget of research at the center of the boob squeezing madness. I’m an associate of the Public Information Committee of the American Society for Cell Biology, which means I help pick out which research from the society’s annual meeting we will promote to the press. This story, presented at the ASCB meeting by Berkeley grad student Gautham Venugopalan, was an easy choice because the science is new, interesting and medically relevant.

And no, he did not squeeze breasts and then measure cancer regression rates – that would be pointless and weird. What he actually did was compress breast cancer cells that were growing in the lab. Remarkably, a brief squeeze prompted the cancer cells to arrange themselves into highly organized spherical structures that are usually only formed by non-cancerous breast cells. The finding is intriguing because these well-behaved cells presumably still had the same cancer-causing genetic mutations that they started with. Venugopalan and his colleagues had somehow blocked the effects of those mutations.

This is precisely the kind of effect that Mina Bissell’s group, who collaborated in the research, searches for. Bissell argues that an important reason why cancer mutations do not always lead to cancer is that a cell’s behavior is strongly regulated by its “microenvironment” – its immediate surroundings, including neighboring cells and a gel-like goo called the extracellular matrix. You can see her discussing this idea in a TED talk in which she describes the experimental system that Venugopalan used. This system simulates the breast cell microenvironment using a gel enriched with extracellular matrix proteins and signaling factors. Bissell’s lab has previously shown that they can force cancerous cells to behave like normal cells by manipulating the signals that come from this simulated microenvironment.

Venugopalan took the system in a different direction, however. He is a member of Daniel Fletcher’s group, who study (among other things) the tiny mechanical forces that cells experience within their microenvironment. Neighboring cells push and pull each other in many ways as they do their various jobs; some cells are compressed as they slide between others, some cells are tugged around because they are stuck together into networks of interlocking cells. But cells are not just passively buffeted, they treat mechanical forces as sources of information, signals about what is going on around them, and in turn manipulate those signals to change their microenvironment. Such mechanical signals can influence the development and spread of cancers in a variety of ways that are still being unravelled.

The Berkeley experiments have contributed to this growing field by demonstrating that signals generated by compression can override certain cancer mutations. Understanding those signals might one day lead to drugs that could control cancers in people, not just in dishes. We even have a clue for where to look for the signals – the effects of compression disappeared when the researchers blocked the function of E-cadherin, a protein that helps glue neighboring cells together.

This work is preliminary. It hasn’t been peer reviewed yet and there’s no guarantee that the findings will translate from the dish to the clinic, but the results were still newsworthy enough for some publications that ignored the boob squeezing angle (like NatureScienceNews, Medical Daily and ironically, the Huffington Post US). You might wonder what is so bad about research being mentioned by publications that would normally not bother to cover it. You might argue that it’s a good thing for people who are hooked in by the pictures of breasts to end up reading about some science, given that most of the earlier articles described the science relatively accurately (ignoring the headlines and leads).

My response would be this travesty from MsnNOW (a tip of the hat to Ankur Chakravarthy, who found this first):

Squeezing breasts could prevent cancer, best study ever says

Getting to second base, the holy grail for hormonal boys, is now science: New research has shown that squeezing breasts could prevent malignant breast cells from causing cancer. This doesn’t give pervy dudes license to grope you on the subway, ladies, but it does mean boob-grabbing should be a regular part of your self-care routine (yes, absolutely try it DIY-style). Experiments found that physical pressure led cells back to normal growth patterns, and that even after compression was no longer applied, the malignant cells stopped growing. Spread the word, boob-lovers of the world.

This is the Chinese whisper effect of viral news, with each new aggregator leaving out more and more context until you’re left with only an echo of the original science.

Don’t be a pony: media training for scientists from Liz Neeley and Ed Yong

I have a scientist friend whose work received a little mainstream media attention last year. He surprised me by telling me that even though he was fielding interview requests from a variety of hallowed and respected magazines and radio shows, he was saying no to all of them. He had several reasons for not wanting to engage, but even when he put those aside, he still felt something that many scientists articulate in his position: there was no chance of the coverage benefiting him and there was a good chance it could hurt his standing amongst his colleagues.

Although I agree that this is true for scientists in many fields, I also think that pretending media coverage isn’t happening isn’t the right response. If your research or field is newsworthy, a journalist will write about it, irrespective of whether you co-operate. Scientists owe it to the public—who probably funded the research—to promote decent reporting of their work by communicating clearly with the media.

Of course, I can act all high-and-mighty on this issue because I’ve never done any research that would be of the slightest news interest. So I was completely unprepared when I was interviewed in an unfriendly tone by the otherwise friendly journalist Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus. He asked me something about the motives of scientists working on GMOs; I replied with silence and a look of terror. Of course, Seth was only pretending to be evil as part of a workshop I attended last week, which was designed to help terrified scientists regain their confidence during an encounter with the media.

The workshop was On the Record – a Media-skills Workshop for Scientists and was just one of the many amazing sessions at ScienceOnline, a beloved annual gabfest for science bloggers and other people with a stake in the communication and practice of science online. Hopefully I will eventually catch up on enough sleep to tell you more about ScienceOnline, because it was awesome and I hope I get to go again next year. The media skills workshop was moderated by Liz Neeley, who trains scientists to communicate without shooting themselves in the foot, and Ed Yong, who used to be a spokesperson for a cancer charity and a science blogging wunderkind, and is now a freelance journalist and a science blogging rockstar. The main thing I took from their advice, the subsequent discussion, and Seth’s mock interview, was that you can have more control over the process by being prepared and by being clear.

Liz particularly stressed the importance of understanding the nature of the relationship between you and the journalist. In most cases, they are not your enemy and they want an excellent and accurate story too, but they are also not your friend and their goals are not identical to yours. This is why it is crucial that you do your background before doing an interview. You need to know exactly who you are talking to and what their goals are likely to be. If someone calls you up and asks for an interview, don’t start answering questions until you have know who it is, who else they have interviewed, when the deadline is, what the piece is about and what type of piece it is. You should also follow up after the interview—ask them for more details about the story, offer recommendations for who else to talk to, and of course, check the published piece for errors.

She also pointed out that scientists can be surprisingly obedient in interviews, waiting for the interviewer to lead and ask all the questions, when it should really be a conversation. This is the point at which Liz pretended to be a pony to illustrate that you should not be one.

Ed had ten tips that went something like:

1) Be aware of the medium (e.g. print vs. TV) and do your background on the journalist.

2) Just consider everything to be ‘on the record.’  If you really want to say something off the record, you will need to negotiate the meaning of ‘off the record’ in advance.

3) There are obvious questions that would arise for any non-specialist hearing about your work, and a good journalist will definitely ask you those questions. You could ask your Mum what those questions might be.

4) Rehearse some lines or answers to the obvious questions, not because you want to come across as a robot, but  because it can help with nerves and deer-in-the-headlights panic.

5) Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself, especially when being filmed or recorded. Sometimes the journalist will need a nice soundbite and will ask you the same question until you say something that is intelligible.

6) Explain your work as you would to a child.

7) Don’t get distracted and don’t distract others. By which he means don’t have other stuff going on during an interview (like your Twitter feed) and don’t wear distracting clothes on TV or make distracting noises on radio.

8) Expect dumbass questions. Don’t be thrown, you can always try to answer a different, more sensible question.

9) If the journalist keeps asking the wrong questions, don’t be afraid to suggest the right questions.

10) The most important, most unbreakable cardinal rule is: Don’t get angry. No matter what. No matter what the provocation, you will always end up looking like a dick.

Amen to that.

The session was interesting and useful, and was one of several spurred by the repetitive cycles of debate on the relationship between the media and science. Ed has summarized the state of the recent discourse in handy diagram form (on the suggestion that emerged from another session, during a discussion of how to get people to click on links, I STRONGLY URGE YOU TO IMMEDIATELY CLICK ON THE LINK RIGHT NOW AND READ ED’S EXCELLENT EXPLAINER THANKYOU KINDLY). If you still can’t be bothered to click on the link, I can paraphrase the worst of the mood as:

Scientist: Journalists are hacks. They get everything wrong and don’t care about science. They should stop questioning us and just write what we tell them to write.

Journalist: Scientists are whiney babies. If we didn’t keep them in line they would go around being all fraudulent and blowing stuff up.

Public information officer: Why doesn’t anyone listen to us?

Even though the debate does get totally pointless sometimes, there are important issues hiding in there. One of those is that scientists have a real, and occasionally justified fear of being misquoted or duped. Unfortunately, if every good scientist gave in to that fear, then we’d be left with the agenda-pushers and self-promoters as the only scientists doing the talking.