Cancer Research: A Look Behind the Curtain

Excerpted from:
Better than Organic – a Conversation with Agricola Part II: (Bad) Science and the (Hopeful) Future by Michael Astera

Agricola: Natural Science, and it’s all Natural Science, is in its infancy, an enforced, perverted neoteny. [ed. note: a term used in biology for an organism that remains in an immature state] The poor baby has been chained in the basement (or is it under the stairs?) and forced into prostitution since it was born. This is not hyperbole or exaggeration. It’s a nearly perfect analogy.

People are attracted to science because of their natural curiosity and love of learning. A true Scientist is inquisitive, observant, and madly infatuated with his subject. He does science because he loves Science. I knew a fellow who graduated with a PhD in Entomology from a university in Arizona. He loved bugs enough to spend eight or nine years of his life living in poverty while going to school to study them. And he loved nature. He was a camper, a hiker, and a mountain climber. Along the way he got married and soon had a family to support. There wasn’t much call for Professors of Entomology and what was available to a new graduate wouldn’t support a growing family, so he took the only job his education qualified him for that paid well enough: he went to work for an exterminating company, spraying poisons to kill insects. Even though he was an organic gardener and a fitness freak, he died of a massive heart attack at age 49. I’m sure the years of exposure to pesticides that one has to have a license to handle were a major factor, but there’s a lot of heartbreak in having to prostitute one’s self that has to be factored in too.

I spent some time investigating a cancer research institute in the Midwestern US, so I know a little whereof I speak. With an annual budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, this cancer institute was basically a factory for spending research dollars. Whoever could write the best grant proposal and get the most money to blow was top dog. I assure you, this place had nothing to do with finding a cure for cancer. They had a seven story building as big as a hotel that held room after room after room of experimental animals in little wire cages all stacked up on roll-around carts. They had an assembly line (or should I say a disassembly line) of underpaid women who worked all day slicing up freshly killed white rats, mice, and hamsters and putting the slices on microscope slides and then putting a thin little glass cover over the rat tissue. This took up an entire floor of another large brick building and was called the department of Histology. And what happened to the slides? They were shipped out to a “storage facility” in the boonies where they were stacked on shelves. I was there, once, at this “scientific specimen” storage facility. Imagine a good sized single-story library with high ceilings and high bookshelves throughout, but instead of books there were boxes and boxes of glass microscope slides all carefully labeled, each with a little slice of animal tissue between the slide and the cover glass. Thousand and thousands of boxes of glass slides. And this had been going on for a while, and the housekeeping was none too great. When one walked down the aisles between the shelves one walked on six or eight inches of broken glass slides and had to be careful that a crumbling box full of slides didn’t fall on one’s head. I swear I am not making this up. And you wouldn’t believe the toxic waste from “cancer research” they stored out there in the hinterlands. Barrels and barrels and more leaking barrels. If you’re trying to give animals cancer you generate a lot of toxins. You don’t want to know how awful this place was.

I have to tell you one more story while I’m thinking about this. That seven story building full of rats, mice, and guinea pigs generated a lot of waste. Down in the basement they had a sort of commercial dishwashing setup with a conveyor tunnel that cleaned the cages with high pressure hot water and soap, and all day long there was a constant stream of six foot high rolling racks of dirty animal cages coming down the elevator. Down in the hot, steamy, stinking cage washing area there was a crew of underpaid young black guys who spent all day emptying the mess out of the cages, hosing them off, and re-stacking them to go through the washing tunnel. The cage waste, manure, food, and bedding, most of it highly contaminated with carcinogens, was augered up to a big hopper bin. At least twice a week the bin had to be emptied, so they pulled a large open dump truck up to the hopper, filled it up and proceeded to drive it, uncovered and wafting carcinogenic rat waste, about twenty miles through the city to the municipal dump, where it was dumped right in with the household garbage. These researchers never gave a thought to the fact that they were spreading carcinogenic waste across the city and contaminating the landfill with it. They were strictly in it for the money.

I swear, if you were a researcher at that place and you came up with a cure for cancer they would knife you and stick your body under six feet of cement in the cellar, where no one would ever find you. You would be putting them all out of a job.

Q: Unbelievable. That’s science? That’s where the thousands of millions of dollars we’ve been spending every year on cancer research for the last thirty five years has been going?

Agricola: I’m afraid so. And I’m afraid that’s where your money goes when you have a walkathon to raise money for research on whatever,– pick a disease. If you find a cure, you’re out of business as a researcher. Of course, if you can come up with a synthesized drug that affects the disease’s symptoms, some drug that is patentable and that people can be convinced they must continue taking for the rest of their life, you can be a rich hot shot too. What is so incredible to me is that this is accepted as normal, rational behavior. It’s not, of course. People who don’t care what the consequences of their actions are, who don’t care who or what they hurt as long as they get theirs, are known in psychology as psychopaths or sociopaths– dangerous and mentally unbalanced menaces to society. And these kinds of people are who we have running science. And industry. And government.

We have to be able to do better than this. Why are the very people who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the job running the world?

Q: … I wonder about the same things myself. But you believe that we can fix this mess and get science back on track, so it would be a joyful pursuit for the good of humanity?

Agricola: We have to. The human race is smarter than this. We can and we will do it. Right now the whole corporate/industrial paradigm is going through its last tango. Its on its way out, but the death spasms aren’t going to be pretty.

The system is just too broken to be fixed. No matter who we elect, appoint or allow they are not going to be able to fix a system that can’t work. Taking more than you give back is not sustainable, by any economic or philosophical theory I’m aware of. It may somehow be justified or rationalized but I don’t know of any sane person who would call it sustainable.

What we’ll have to do is start from scratch and build a system that does work. If there are two systems running side by side, one that is sustainable and even increasing in abundance and efficiency, alongside a system that is only interested in short term gain and the heck with the consequences, which system is going to survive and prosper in the long run?

We humans are supposed to be the caretakers of this planet, for God’s sake; the gardeners and the park rangers. Instead we have behaved as thieves and poachers. And who are we stealing from? Our children and grandchildren and ourselves and every other living and non-living thing on this beautiful, generous planet. What ungrateful wretches we are.

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