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Journalism via news release as Pfizer gets free publicity without releasing any data

This week, Pfizer announced news from a trial of a drug for advanced breast cancer. The Pfizer news release stated “that the randomized Phase 2 trial [PALOMA-1] of palbociclib achieved its primary endpoint by demonstrating a statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvement in progression-free survival (PFS) for the combination of palbociclib and letrozole compared with letrozole alone in post-menopausal women with estrogen receptor positive (ER+), human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 negative (HER2-) locally advanced or newly diagnosed metastatic breast cancer.”

The Wall Street Journal reported on that announcement, and used a Pfizer quote straight out of the Pfizer news release.

The study suggests “the potential for palbociclib to transform the standard of care for post-menopausal women with ER+ and HER2- advanced breast cancer,” said Mace Rothenberg, Pfizer Oncology’s chief medical officer. “This is encouraging information for these women, who represent approximately 60% of the advanced breast cancer population.”

There was no independent perspective in the story.  But there was this line:

The drug maker plans to present data from the study at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in April.

So, without seeing the data, or without seeking an independent perspective, the Wall Street Journal gave Pfizer free publicity on trial results that may not even be discussed publicly until two months from now.

So did the Associated Press.  The AP included an analyst’s prediction that the drug would “produce annual global sales of $2.9 billion in 2013.” (??) And the story paraphrased the analyst saying that “Pfizer’s comments Monday could raise expectations the company could apply for and receive palbociclib approval a little earlier than expected.”

Again, no independent expert scientific perspective.  Just an analyst whipping up a frenzy over data that no one but Pfizer has seen.

Oh, but lots of common folks like us saw the news. Because the AP story was picked up by:

  • ABC News
  • The Charlotte Observer
  • The Boston Herald
  • The Idaho Statesman
  • The Washington Times
  • The Bradenton Herald
  • The Fort Worth Star Telegram
  • The Myrtle Beach Sun News
  • Philly.com
  • many others

Reuters also reported on the Pfizer news release, bringing it to even more eyeballs. Huffington Post was among the media that re-ran that story.

The WSJ, AP and Reuters stories were business stories.  But as they are republished by other news sources that need to “feed the beast” of their online presence, they are thrown into the hopper right alongside other consumer health “news you can use.”

There’s no “news you can use” at this stage in the research unless you’re an investor.  And even then, why don’t such stories include even a line about the boulevard of broken dreams of past breakthrough drugs that didn’t pan out?

Why don’t they include an independent scientific perspective? Granted, it’s difficult to comment when the data haven’t been released yet.

All of which makes all of this news over a Pfizer news release feel more like stenography than journalism.

But that’s the way it works with the business of health.

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