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Wide variations in way journalists cover cancer gene therapy story

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What a flashback! 21 years ago, National Cancer Institute researcher Steven Rosenberg became a media darling because of his work with Interleukin-2 against cancer. Magazine covers, newspaper headlines, Today show appearances. Much of it hype.

Yesterday a new media feeding frenzy was kicked off when the journal Science published a Rosenberg (et al) paper about remissions in two people with advanced melanoma using genetically altered white blood cells from the patients themselves. The 15 other people in the trial died.

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker website comments on the variation in the way journalists covered the story:

“Gene therapy has failed so many times to live up the hype of a generation ago (much of it abetted by journalists) that good reporters are usually cautious in writing about it. So it was that some who covered this put the experiment’s limitations ahead of its achievements. The Baltimore Sun’s Michael Stroh, for example, wrote a lede that started: “In a small study…â€? Lauran Neergaard of the AP went with a more upbeat lede: “Government scientists turned regular blood cells into tumor attackers that wiped out all signs of cancer in two men with advanced melanoma,â€? but followed with a second graf that started “Butâ€? and said the treatment failed in 15 others.

A sampling: The Washington Post’s David Brown was careful to note that none of the scientists would claim the two patients were cured, a verdict that would have to wait at least five years; however, Karen Kaplan, writing in the Los Angeles times, called the treatment a “cure.â€? Sabin Russell in the San Francisco Chronicle appropriately called the study “tinyâ€?; Joe Palca had a good backgrounder-cum-news story on NPR Thursday afternoon; The Telegraph’s Roger Highfield in the UK was unusually upbeat, spinning a heartwarming anecdote of one patient in whom the treatment worked through nine paragraphs before telling his readers that the treatment failed in 15 others.”

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September 29, 2006 at 7:30 am

It is true that gene therapy is a risky procedure, and unforeseen things can happen. But gene therapy beholds the future for many diseases like diabetes. Get going.