This Wall Street Journal article nicely summarizes the findings of a retrospective study of 1,400 cases of women with ovarian cancer; some of whom had been prescribed beta-blockers for high blood pressure and appeared to have better outcomes than those not taking beta-blockers. It hits on nearly all of our criteria, and was more thorough and balanced than an MD Anderson news release that initially announced the findings to the world. (More on that below.) A bit more detail on the cost of these drugs, and a bit more restraint in discussing the outcomes of a small group of women who were taking a particular class of beta-blocker and had much better survival statistics, would have rounded out this story.
We often say that news releases can set the tone for subsequent media coverage of new research, and that a poor news release can lead to a great deal of misinformation reaching the public. We’ve compared this phenomenon to sheep following one another. However, it’s also true that good reporting can fill in the holes left by an incomplete news release and present a more balanced portrait of findings to readers. In this case, MD Anderson announced the results of this study with a news release that has been reviewed separately on HealthNewsReview.org and found wanting in several areas. Specifically, it used inappropriate language to describe the benefits and lacked a discussion of harms and limitations of the research. This story by and large addresses those issues and demonstrates how good health reporting can play an important and useful role in informing the public. There are plenty of reporters out there who can’t be led like sheep, and our project aims to shine a light on them and hopefully cultivate many more of them.
The story mentions that beta-blockers are available as generics but doesn’t specifically mention costs. As a class, beta blockers drugs are low cost ($10 to $200 a month according to some estimates).
The article describes the median survival time afforded the women with ovarian cancer under different scenarios – with or without beta blockers in addition to their chemotherapy. For example, women who had been taking any beta blocker at the time of their chemotherapy had a median survival of 47.8 months while women who were not being treated with beta blockers while on chemo had median survival time of 42 months.
The article notes that the quoted source and the study authors cautioned that beta blockers carry some side effects and additional research is needed to determine if the drugs’ benefits outweigh their risks for cancer patients. It specifically mentions risks for people with asthma. Other specific harms from beta-blockers for the general population include depression and diarrhea. Beta-blockers may also cause complications for people with diabetes.
The article provides a good overall description of the size of the study and how patients were followed. It describes the median survival time afforded the 1,425 women with ovarian cancer under different scenarios – with or without beta blockers in addition to their chemotherapy. The use of language is appropriate in that it says these drugs were “linked to” and “associated with” benefits, but never claims that the drugs “prolonged survival” as stated in the MD Anderson news release.
The story also briefly touched on the study limitations. Because the research was a retrospective look at 1,425 cases in a database of ovarian cancer cases, it wasn’t randomized. The article also notes that more research is needed to determine if the findings will translate into new treatments, and that “This is not something that people should rush out and start taking.”
One area of concern is that the subheadline touts the dramatic benefits seen in a subgroup of patients taking nonselective beta-blockers — “A type of beta blocker is tied to more than four-year increase in survival for women with ovarian cancer, study finds” — but the story never specifically cautions readers about the small size of this group (only 75 people). Findings from such a small subgroup should be treated very carefully, and we’re not sure that they should have been highlighted for readers in the headline. We say this knowing full well that reporters often have no control over what gets put in the headline.
We observed no evidence of fear-mongering language in the story.
The story includes an independent source who wasn’t affiliated with the research. Christina Annunziata, a director with the Center for Cancer Research at the National Institutes of Health, said that while she found the study “interesting” and “thought-provoking,” she cautioned that “I don’t think it’s practice-changing quite yet.” Annunziata co-authored an editorial accompanying the report which were both published in the American Cancer Society’s Cancer journal.
The story would have been even stronger had it outlined the funding sources for this study, which included government and foundation grants. However, since we didn’t find any significant conflicts in the list of funding sources, we didn’t think this omission unbalanced the coverage.
The relevant research is based on evaluating the use of beta blockers in conjunction with conventional chemotherapy, not as an alternative to chemotherapy or other courses of treatment. As such, we’ll rate “Compare Alternatives” as Not Applicable.
Beta blockers are called “common heart drugs” in the story and are thus generally understood to be widely available. Beta-blockers first came on the market more than 50 years ago and their use has become widespread as researchers found more applications for this class of drugs. Generic versions are available, making them some of the most affordable prescription drugs.
A close call here. The story acknowledges previous research in this areas when it says, “Mouse and test-tube studies have shown that so-called nonselective beta blockers inhibit molecular pathways that promote tumor growth. Selective versions, designed to minimize side effects for heart patients, are less effective in hitting such targets. Dr. Sood and his colleagues wondered if the same effect would be found in people.” That’s good context, but the story could also have noted that a number of studies have indeed examined the impact of beta-blocker use on ovarian cancer patients, and did not find the same prolonged survival rates that are reported on in this story. The researchers think that’s because these earlier studies didn’t distinguish between the two types of beta-blockers.
Because the article quotes an independent, unaffiliated cancer expert, we are confident the article doesn’t rely solely on a press release.