I’m supposed to be on vacation this week, but I can’t ignore the new wave of “cancer cure” talk in major news organizations just in the past two days.
Gina Kolata’s front-page New York Times story, which included the quote, “”this is the road map for how we might cure breast cancer in the future,” was the subject of two posts today on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker:
“Sorting out what is new about the breast-cancer-genetics study published Sunday in Nature is proving to be a daunting task. Reading the coverage, however, it seems most of the press made a mistake.
What I read in much of the copy, however, was not included in the release, nor could I find it in the study itself.
Gina Kolata at The New York Times reported that researchers “have identified four genetically distinct types” of breast cancer. But the press release says researchers “described new insights into the four standard molecular subtypes” of breast cancer. Kolata’s lede is apparently wrong, and so is the headline that reflects the error. A Google search turned up many stories that talked about the identification of four types of breast cancer–all, apparently, incorrect. Victoria Colliver at The San Francisco Chronicle seems to make the same mistake, if it is a mistake, in a lede that says researchers “have redefined the disease into four main classes.” So did the AP.
Liz Szabo at USA Today avoids that phrasing, writing that scientists “have finished mapping virtually all of the genetic mutations in breast cancer,” which may be overreaching a bit. The press release says the researchers identified a lot of genetic mutations, but it doesn’t say that the study covered “virtually all” of them. She also writes that the resarch “could soon change the way patients are treated.” In contrast, Harold Varmus, the head of the National Cancer Institute, says in the release, “This treasure trove of genetic information will need to be examined in great detail to identify how we can use if functionally and clinically.” In other words, I think, it will not affect the way patients are treated any time soon.
A lede that noted the similarity between ovarian cancer and one kind of breast cancer would have been safe. So would a lede that said resarchers made a major advance in understanding the genetics of breast cancer, which might one day lead to better care for patients.”
“It is important to recall that despite the fact this is incredibly sophisticated and difficult work, it is still reasonably early in our ability to perform the analyses, interpret the data, and determine the best way to apply it to the clinic. We still have a long way to go, and we must always remember that cancer has a way of being more complicated at every turn that we might otherwise anticipate as our research and our knowledge advances. But research such as this also puts more of the pieces of the puzzle of breast cancer together in a way that a solution to the dilemma of understanding breast cancer and how we can apply the best treatment does appear to be more readily at hand.
What is the most important message from this research?
Unfortunately, it is not going to change lives immediately. Your doctor isn’t going to give you a different treatment for your breast cancer today, tomorrow, or next week because of this research. There is no question that doctors involved in breast cancer treatment are going to take a very careful look at this research and determine the best way to apply this information to new approaches to breast cancer as quickly as they can, but that will still take time.
To me, the most important message from this research is to confirm what many of us have been thinking for some time now: we are seeing the fruits of decades—yes, decades—of hard work in the laboratory taking us to a point we are going to have a significant impact on patient care and the outcomes of treatment for cancer. At the same time, the very support for that research is in jeopardy due to decreases in government funding, business investment, and private philanthropy.”
And then there’s CNN’s Sanjay Gupta proclaiming on Twitter:
BREAKING cure for #cancer close says md anderson. plan to “drastically reduce” cases & deaths n 5yrs! im reporting excl details all day @cnn
Breaking news? A hospital PR announcement?
Another proclamation of cure for cancer close?
This isn’t going to be much of a vacation week if this keeps up!