Health News Review

This week, Pfizer announced news from a trial of a drug for advanced breast cancer. The Pfizer news release stated “that the randomized Phase 2 trial [PALOMA-1] of palbociclib achieved its primary endpoint by demonstrating a statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvement in progression-free survival (PFS) for the combination of palbociclib and letrozole compared with letrozole alone in post-menopausal women with estrogen receptor positive (ER+), human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 negative (HER2-) locally advanced or newly diagnosed metastatic breast cancer.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on that announcement, and used a Pfizer quote straight out of the Pfizer news release.

The study suggests “the potential for palbociclib to transform the standard of care for post-menopausal women with ER+ and HER2- advanced breast cancer,” said Mace Rothenberg, Pfizer Oncology’s chief medical officer. “This is encouraging information for these women, who represent approximately 60% of the advanced breast cancer population.”

There was no independent perspective in the story.  But there was this line:

The drug maker plans to present data from the study at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in April.

So, without seeing the data, or without seeking an independent perspective, the Wall Street Journal gave Pfizer free publicity on trial results that may not even be discussed publicly until two months from now.

So did the Associated Press.  The AP included an analyst’s prediction that the drug would “produce annual global sales of $2.9 billion in 2013.” (??) And the story paraphrased the analyst saying that “Pfizer’s comments Monday could raise expectations the company could apply for and receive palbociclib approval a little earlier than expected.”

Again, no independent expert scientific perspective.  Just an analyst whipping up a frenzy over data that no one but Pfizer has seen.

Oh, but lots of common folks like us saw the news. Because the AP story was picked up by:

  • ABC News
  • The Charlotte Observer
  • The Boston Herald
  • The Idaho Statesman
  • The Washington Times
  • The Bradenton Herald
  • The Fort Worth Star Telegram
  • The Myrtle Beach Sun News
  • many others

Reuters also reported on the Pfizer news release, bringing it to even more eyeballs. Huffington Post was among the media that re-ran that story.

The WSJ, AP and Reuters stories were business stories.  But as they are republished by other news sources that need to “feed the beast” of their online presence, they are thrown into the hopper right alongside other consumer health “news you can use.”

There’s no “news you can use” at this stage in the research unless you’re an investor.  And even then, why don’t such stories include even a line about the boulevard of broken dreams of past breakthrough drugs that didn’t pan out?

Why don’t they include an independent scientific perspective? Granted, it’s difficult to comment when the data haven’t been released yet.

All of which makes all of this news over a Pfizer news release feel more like stenography than journalism.

But that’s the way it works with the business of health.


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Matthew Herper posted on February 6, 2014 at 11:50 am

Nice post, Gary, but not covering this one wasn’t an option for anyone trying to make sure they stay on top of all market-moving news.

I didn’t write on this because I can’t write on everything, but this is a huge deal. Forecasts for palbociclib are as high as $5 billion in annual sales; investors knew the design of the study and were waiting for this top-line announcement. I totally agree that everybody shouldn’t just be aping the press release, but you can’t wait for the full data in covering the financial impact of stories like this. And for patients entering clinical trials, its useful information.

I’m with you on the need for a standard paragraph on the odds of success in phase II, and an explanation of why you think this one is different. These press releases are a situation where it really helps if the reporter is qualified, able, and allowed to have an informed opinion.

    Gary Schwitzer posted on February 6, 2014 at 11:55 am


    Thanks for your note.

    To clarify, nowhere in my post did I suggest that this should not be covered.

    Rather, I tried to suggest how it could be covered if it were to be covered.

    But it looks like we agree on that.

Greg Pawelski posted on February 6, 2014 at 2:25 pm

As long the practice of American medicine continues to move from a profession to an industrial undertaking, it will continue to be prey upon the dictates of the American business model: patients are no longer the purchasers of medical care and services but consumers of those goods and services that meet the needs of the purveyors (pharmaceutical company). Patients have become cogs in the wheel of the medical-industrial complex.

Pamela J. Breakey posted on February 10, 2014 at 4:00 pm

Thank you for this article! As a literate and involved citizen, I have been concerned about the decline of the press! The parroting of press releases is part of that, along with the ever fewer knowledgeable health and science reporters to dig into information such as this.
As a breast cancer advocate and metastatic breast cancer patient, I am very aware that ” a statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvement in progression-free survival (PFS)” can mean a mere few weeks without any increase in over all survival (OS). Most of the women that I know who are living with metastatic breast cancer are not impressed by 3 month improvements in PFS! Absent a cure, we want years not months and improvements in OS.

Bruce Parker posted on February 11, 2014 at 9:25 am

Gary et al: When there is competition between “exciting breaking news” and a measured assessment of news, the excitement usually wins in all venues, including peer reviewed medical journals. There is a bias toward publishing positive data. Manufacturer supported studies are often [usually] carefully designed toward goals including presenting positive, marketable news. I harbor no illusion that I am able to read such news releases and related medical journal articles without the assistance of such stars as Jeannie Lenzer & Jerry Hoffman. Oh: and Gary Schwitzer