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CBS: slow down the Alzheimer’s drug trial hype – 2 examples in 1 week.

What follows are the third and fourth Alzheimer’s disease news items we’ve reviewed in the last 3 days.  This could be a full-time beat. Perhaps some of what we’re seeing was prompted by The Alzheimer’s Association conducting its “advocacy forum” in Washington this week, with a national fundraising dinner last night (with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer as emcee).

Both of the following stories were reported by CBS.  Both had significant flaws and omissions.

Last night, the CBS Evening News had a piece reported by Wyatt Andrews, who is not a health care journalist.  It appears that Dr. Jon LaPook was tied up with the Angelina Jolie story.

Andrews reported on the A4 Study – “a clinical study for older individuals (ages 65-85) who have normal thinking and memory function but who may be at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD) memory loss sometime in the future.” The A4 label comes from the study’s more formal name – the Anti-Amyloid Treatment in Asymptomatic Alzheimer’s study. It’s big.  It’s innovative.  It’s newsworthy.  Its goal is “to test whether decreasing amyloid with antibody investigational treatment can help slow the memory loss associated with amyloid buildup in some people.” Some researchers believe that amyloid (protein) plaques are responsible for the damage of Alzheimer’s disease. But not all researchers accept that theory.  

Yet CBS allowed the A4 Study principal investigator to get away with saying, unchallenged: 

“If we can treat the amyloid buildup early enough, we can prevent memory loss.”

Perhaps her video clip was taken out of context by CBS, but that’s what CBS used – unchallenged – on the air.  And it demanded a challenge.  Since amyloid isn’t even clearly established as the cause of Alzheimer’s, you can’t make claims about treating it to prevent memory loss.  Read the goal of the study (above) again.  The study isn’t done yet.  That evidence isn’t in yet.  But the cheerleading reporter asked the researcher, “Are you excited about this?” The researcher responds, “This trial, for me, is game-changing.”

But, in fact, it’s too early to know if it will be game-changing for patients.  Since she introduced the game analogy, we could add to it:  that’s why you “play the game”; that’s why you do the studies.

Wyatt Andrews tagged the story at the end, mentioning a Mayo Clinic study that he said “identifies a different toxic protein called tau as the likely cause of Alzheimer’s.  Most researchers believe that tau and amyloid are connected and the A4 study has now been expanded to track the buildup of both in the brains of these patients.”

Not terribly clear nor helpful.  The true depth and scope of the debate over amyloid theories just didn’t come through in that report.  By comparison, see this Bloomberg story, headlined, “New Research Shows We May Be Looking at Alzheimer’s All Wrong.”  Its opening line states that the new tau study “may revive a long-running debate over whether the drug industry is focusing on the right target in developing therapies to treat the disease.”

Another Alzheimer’s example from CBS was from last week.

CBS then posted a story headlined, “Experimental Alzheimer’s drug shows promise.

Do you think it was news about:

A.  Results from a Phase III trial in 100 people over two years’ time

B.  Results from a Phase II trial in 50 people over one year’s time

C.  the same drug that the Boston Globe reported “offered hope” last week, and that NBC called a “silver bullet”

D.  I have no idea

If you answered A or B, you were guessing because that information is not in the story.

If you answered C, you didn’t read the story or follow the link above in C, because that was a different drug that “offered hope” like a “silver bullet.

If you answered D,  you are honest and you wouldn’t have received the answer even if you had read or listened to the story.

This was simply a story about researchers recruiting subjects for a trial.  Period.  There wasn’t anything in the story about the drug’s performance. The story says the “drug shows promise” – similar to Brooklyn Dodgers fans who used to say “Wait till next year.”

There is about as much data to back up claims about the drug showing promise as there is from Spring Training to show that this will be “the year” for the Dodgers.

Refer back to the graphic from yesterday’s Alzheimer’s post.  It showed that:

  • For every 119 compounds in pre-clinical testing (prior to human trials), 1 is approved.  One.
  • For every 23 drugs that survive to Phase II testing (the stage of these trials), only 1 is approved.  One.

Will CBS report on all of the other Alzheimer’s drugs that enter Phase II testing with headlines that read, “Drug shows promise”?

If not, where’s the balance?

But if they do, where’s the value of the journalism?

CBS News is headquartered in New York.  This story featured a New York hospital which was one of 50 participating trial centers.  Is this how health care news editorial decisions should be made?

Although I am sure it is neither intentional nor malicious, there is a form of inadvertent cruelty behind proclamations of “promise…hope…silver bullets” about drugs that are still early in clinical trials.

CBS, please wait until better, longer-term data are available.  Then we can better define promise…and separate hope from false hope.

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Comments (1)

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Linda Furlini

March 25, 2015 at 12:57 pm

It fails to amaze me that CBS speaks on both sides of the mouth when it comes to the Amyloid Hypothesis (i.e. reducing Amyloid plaque will improve the condition of those with Alzheimer’s). The current coverage on new drug Alzheimer drug development fails to mention that the Amyloid hypothesis is very, very far from proven. Leslie Stahl did a piece for 60 minutes some time ago about a long term study on aging. See: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/living-to-90-and-beyond-60-minutes/. “Living to 90 and beyond.”
In this fascinating longitudinal study, Dr. Claudi Kawas, provides evidence that some people with amyloid plaques do not develop Alzheimer’s and vice versa (See transcribed text).
So I have one question for CBS. How do you account for your conflicting reporting on Amyloid plaques as it relates to Alzheimer’s disease???