Feeble, fawning NYT story on Provenge

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It is not with any relish that HealthNewsReview.org publishes its worst review ever of a New York Times story.

Summary of our review:

“This story about a drug company’s announcement of positive study results fails readers in every important way.

It portrays a “decisive” clinicial trial that shows a first-of-its-kind prostate cancer drug “prolonged the lives of men.” It spins the tale of a determined company rewarded for its persistence against a slow-witted bureaucracy, whose earlier inaction led to the loss of “a lot of good men.” It presents testimony of a cancer-stricken patient “looking into the abyss,” seeking only “a chance.” It anticipates the drug’s approval, and documents Wall Street’s instant validation of the study findings.

Not until paragraph eight does the story state that the company has not released the results, that the findings will not be discussed in public for two weeks, and that even then they will not have been peer-reviewed or published. It does not say that the results of this medical study were announced in a conference call to investors.

It recklessly, even perversely, suggests that the FDA’s earlier inaction, combined with patient protests and what are now claimed to be positive results, constitute proof of efficacy.

It’s hard to imagine why a story would delay and omit key information, imply efficacy had been demonstrated in the absense of evidence, or fail to balance all the positive views with those of a skeptic, or at least someone who urges prudence until the data are made public.

It is true that this story was originally published in the paper’s business section. But all journalists share a common responsibility to the public when writing stories about diseases and treatments. In today’s media environment, where a story’s readers usually encounter it out of context of a “section,” few readers will be “savvy” enough, if that is the word, to bring lower expectations of accuracy, balance and fairness to a story about what a drug can do for a deadly disease merely because it was originally written for the “business” section.

It’s painful to imagine how families affected by advanced prostate cancer may respond to this article, and then to what they will subsequently learn. Even investors are badly served by such an unbalanced, incomplete story.

In any case, it is distressing to see such credulous, feeble, negligent journalism published anywhere in the New York Times.”

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Doug McKenzie

April 17, 2009 at 10:41 pm

Readers, please check out this site for the other side of the story. (Gary, no profanity, nothing obnoxious, no product pitches).


April 18, 2009 at 12:16 am

It just blows my mind that the full case study is not given to everyone. If they have found something of this value it should make mainstream media with proof and side effects given. We wonder why the world is going bad.


April 18, 2009 at 10:34 pm

Agree with your assessment of the NYT Provenge pience.
Advanced prostate cancer patients are terminally ill. As such, most will try anything for relief or delay in the progression of their chronic disease.
As a pharmaceutical critic, and a holder of no shares from no one, Provenge is the first immunotherapy biologic treatment for advanced prostate cancer.
Before this treatment option, chemotherapy was the only option available for such patients.
Many such patients refused this treatment due to the brutal side effects of chemotherapy.
Provenge therapy consists of three injections in a month and a half.
The efficacy of provenge was proven, and shown to the FDA, in 2007. The FDA panel recommended the approval of Provenge, and upon their own volition, placed Provenge on a fast track status with the FDA in 2007.
Soon afterwards, the FDA, with it’s commissioner at the time a prostate cancer survivor himself, rejected the approval of provenge due to ‘lack of data’.
Conflicts of interest with the FDA and others have been suggested and illustrated by others.
My point is that, aside from flawed reporting as you have illustrated well here, there is much more that needs to be done to improve at least this element of our health care system.


April 19, 2009 at 1:21 pm

Why is it ‘not with any relish’ that you support this? The quality and bias of reporting at the NYT has been deteriorating for some time. Kudos for covering all sides but the ‘relish’ comment is puzzling.

The Publisher

April 19, 2009 at 1:32 pm

Dr V,
Thanks for your note.
I don’t enjoy seeing shoddy journalism. I would relish highlighting truly outstanding work – as I try to do on this site when I see it.
There shouldn’t be anything puzzling about that.
In this time of much-needed health care reform, we can’t afford stories like this.
The Publisher