ABC, CBS, NBC hype cancer "breakthrough"

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The subject was a study in the New England Journal of Medicine on PARP inhibitors. It was an early phase I trial – the kind of trial that is not primarily designed to measure effectiveness. That didn’t stop the big 3 TV networks from trumpeting “BREAKTHROUGH!”

The CBS Early Show said “researchers in Britain say they may have found the holy grail of cancer research.” They called it “incredibly effective” but gave no evidence to support that.

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On NBC, veteran science correspondent Robert Bazell made no mention of the limited scope and duration of the phase I trial or what sort of testing remains to be done. The correspondent presented this treatment as essentially proven, proclaiming “whatever else happens, these drugs look like they will eventually save thousands of lives.”


Compared to the NBC News story on treating cancers with PARP inhibitors, ABC News was relatively restrained in its enthusiasm. It offers viewers more information about the underlying concept of synthetic lethality, which is really the core of the news value of this journal article. ABC still called it a breakthrough and still predicted widespread availability within two years – a foolish prediction game to play.


Pick your poison: the offerings of network TV health news.

(Hat tip to Andrew Holtz, who reviewed two of the stories on See the full reviews there.)

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Comments (6)

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June 26, 2009 at 10:51 am

I was surprised to see even the Cancer Letter describe PARP inhibitors as “the talk of ASCO” recently

Kirsten Goldberg

June 26, 2009 at 4:08 pm

The Cancer Letter (June 5, 2009) and many other publications reported on a randomized phase II trial presented at the ASCO plenary session, as well as a smaller non-randomized phase II trial presented at the ASCO annual meeting. We did hear a lot of enthusiasm for the plenary session study, but our story included some caveats. Multiple companies are developing PARP inhibitors, so this could be an interesting area to watch over the next few years. But certainly, the results of a phase I trial should never be called a “breakthrough,” even with a question mark after it.


July 6, 2009 at 10:58 pm

Behind the PARP-1 Clinical Trials
The PARP-1 clinical trials were done in large part through member practices of US Oncology, not through a major university or university consortium.
Speaking of US Oncology, pharmaceutical spokespeople would rather have you take Abraxane (a new form of Taxol) at $4,200 a dose even though many patients can be resistant to it, develop a tolerance, limiting the drug’s ability to fight future occurrences of cancer.
And according to clinical trials, although it does shrink tumor in more patient, Abraxane does not help patients live longer than the old treatments. Charging $4,200 a dose for a new version of an old cancer drug.
Healthcare network provider, US Oncology, played a role in getting this drug approved.
According to Dr. Ramaswamy Govindan, a Washington University professor who co-authored an article in the Annals of Oncology about Abraxane, none of the new (Cremophor-free versions of Taxol) drugs had shown significant advantages over the older medicines. In general, the novel formulations so far have not stood out as distinclty superior.
Remember US Oncology and pharmaceutical EPO anyone? They obused giving the drug so much that they couldn’t convince Medicare otherwise.
US Oncology has 15% of the Community Oncology market. When the reality of pharmaceutical EPO was exposed, US Oncology banked $8-10 million a year less than expected in their SEC Form 10-K report.
According to Forbes, US Oncology has become the nation’s single largest purchaser of chemotherapy drugs, spending a projected $2 billion last year. The company has attracted a swarm of critics, often nonprofit or community hospitals, alleging that US Oncology destroys the fragile local economics of the U.S. health care system.