Canadian journalist: every cancer cure claim needs scrutiny

Carly Weeks of The Globe and Mail, based in Toronto, writes, “Why every claim of an exciting new cancer cure needs close examination.” She begins:

“The Internet loves a good conspiracy.

Have you heard the one about scientists finding a cure for cancer, but it being blocked from the public because Big Pharma can’t make a cent off it?

Those sensational accusations appear on multiple websites and YouTube videos that purport to expose the “truth” about how a cheap and safe drug that has been around for decades is actually an expert cancer-cell killer. They claim that because the drug, called dichloroacetic acid or dichloroacetate (DCA), is a widely available chemical compound and can’t be patented, drug companies aren’t interested in pursuing it as a cancer treatment. Some conspiracy theorists take it a step further, saying that health organizations and cancer charities are in on the plot to keep this miracle drug out of sight because they have ties to drug firms and want to keep money flowing their way.

It reads like the plot of a cheesy gift-shop thriller.

However, the idea that DCA may be used to eradicate cancer cells originated in respected medical journals, not the bowels of the Internet. Subsequent media attention painted a glowing picture of DCA as a cancer treatment, which led to a frenzy among patients and family members desperately hoping for a cure.

The true picture, however, is far less clear.”

That’s the hook.  Now please read the rest of her analysis.  But note how she describes media coverage through the years that referred to the drug as “a potentially life-saving treatment” that “astounded” researchers….and “a miracle drug” (including in her own newspaper). She concludes:

“Every week, dozens of press releases cross the news wires, alerting editors and readers to a new “breakthrough” or “landmark discovery” that may forever change the way a disease is treated.

What is often missing from those announcements is that those discoveries may just as likely change nothing. True breakthroughs are rare and the development of important new treatments takes years – decades, even – of rigorous research and study. Overzealous reporting of preliminary findings may generate positive publicity for researchers and institutions, but it does patients no favours.”

Earlier this week I wrote about a fresh New York Times story that referred to a line of cancer research as ““amazing…game-changer…watershed moment.”

Canadians Weeks, her colleague Andre Picard at the same newspaper and rising star Julia Belluz (now on a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT) seem to scrutinize evidence in media messages and even criticize news coverage more often than any of their U.S. colleagues in mainstream news organizations.  And I applaud them for their efforts.  Wish we saw more of it down here in the land of guns and Obamacare.


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