Health News Review

This WebMD report on the results of experiments with a drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease covers the basics, but readers are likely to perceive a bigger research advance than those who see the more-careful AP story we also reviewed.

Our Review Summary

This story meets almost all of our criteria. However, the AP story we also reviewed does a better job overall of describing the research results. That said, the WebMD story included a clear disclaimer about the preliminary nature of medical meeting announcements that would have been a good addition to the AP story.


Why This Matters

Alzheimer’s disease is a debilitating and devastating disease for patients, families and for society in general.  No adequate treatment exists to either stem the progressive decline in memory and cognitive function or to treat the symptoms.  Reporting on the results of clinical trails must then be done with great care.

The study “results” reported by the manufacturer and the Alzheimer Disease Cooperative Study are not from a single well controlled clinical trial.  Two randomized clinical trials of solanezumab (Expedition 1 and 2) failed to demonstrate an advantage of the beta amyloid antibody over placebo.  These discouraging results were reported earlier this year.

A subsequent secondary analysis of data generated by combining the two studies also failed to demonstrate an advantage for the drug in subjects with mild to moderate symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  On further examination, the data suggest a modest improvement in the rate of decline in cognitive function and memory in subjects with mild symptoms who received the drug as compared to placebo in these 80 week trials.  In fact the differences were very modest.

It is unclear if these results are replicable, will provide meaningful improvements in patient’s lives or are durable.  Subsequent studies will be needed.


Criteria

Satisfactory

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

Though it is too early to have a firm price, the story notes that similar drugs can cost hundreds of dollars per month. This price reference is more specific than the one in the AP story.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

On this score, the WebMD story comes up short in comparison with the AP story.

The lead sentence says the treatment “slowed memory loss by about one-third in people with mild Alzheimer’s, offering hope that the drug can alter the course of the progressive disease.” But the story doesn’t really explain what was measured or if the differences are in fact clinically important. And while one expert was asked “if the 34% improvement in cognitive decline is meaningful to a patient,” the expert’s answer that she’d be happy if her mother-in-law got a “sustained cognitive benefit,” still doesn’t define what this drug did or did not do for people in these trials.

Satisfactory

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Satisfactory

This story included more detail than the AP story about rates of chest pain, reporting that just over 1% of trial participants taking the active drug reported chest pain, compared to just 0.2% of those in the placebo group. We do take some issue with the description as chest pain when the report describes it as angina.  However, this story did not mention the cases of brain swelling and or small bleeding in the brain that were included in the AP report. Nonetheless, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Satisfactory

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

This story included an important caveat that was missing from the AP report. It specifically alerted readers to the fact that announcements at medical meetings should be consider preliminary and aren’t subjected to as much scrutiny as reports published in medical journals. The story also described the key features of the trials, including the number and types of patients, and the length of the trials. Like the AP story, this one pointed out that there were actually two trials that only produced significant statistics when the data was combined. However, it didn’t do as good a job describing what was measured by the researchers.

Satisfactory

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering here. The story adequately described the type of person for which this research might be relevant.

 

Satisfactory

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The story includes independent experts, although their independence from the drug maker’s research is implied rather than clearly declared. AP, though, did a better job.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

This story does not include background on existing treatments.

Satisfactory

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story reports that the drug is still being tested.

Not Satisfactory

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story reports that this experimental drug is intended to address a possible underlying cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but it does not make clear that existing treatments address symptoms only. The AP story did a better job of putting this drug in context.

A quick search comes up with many stories just in the past 5 years that made claims about drugs slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.  What makes this approach different?

Satisfactory

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to be based on a news release.

Total Score: 7 of 10 Satisfactory


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