More Bow Tie, Less Glitz Please: Breast Cancer Vaccine Promises Don’t Serve Readers/Viewers

The following is a guest blog post from one of our new contributors, Alan Cassels, who is an author, journalist, and drug policy researcher with an interest in how clinical research and experience on pharmaceuticals gets translated for policy-makers, prescribers and consumers.


Sometimes a news story feels like a scientific conference.  Half the time you’re wandering around an exhibit area with cavernous ceilings,  chatting with plenty of well-dressed, attractive salespeople, while helping yourself to freebies.  The dazzling eye-candy exhibits, music and buzz, carries the promotional tones of    ‘breakthrough’, ‘game-changer’ and ‘incredible scientific advance,’ a vibe that might hit the spot but is not the main reason you’re there.  You’ve come for the real deal – the part that is serious and scientific, delivered in a dark auditorium by a bow-tied, grey-haired academic who begs the audience not to get too excited about his team’s unpublished, preliminary results from their small trial of a new therapy.   He’s the opposite of flash, but has the halo of truthiness you’ve come looking for.

One never actually ventures out of the exhibit hall when reading this article on USA Today’s website about a vaccine trial for patients with “triple negative” breast cancer, described as a “major breakthrough.” (The story actually comes from a Gannett-owned TV station in Jacksonville.  USA Today is owned by Gannett.) The article focuses on research coming from the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville Florida, which is planning a clinical trial of a vaccine that can “wake up the immune system” and fights cancer cells that may need mopping up after a person has had regular chemotherapy.

There are sufficient facts to propel the narrative:  triple-negative breast cancer strikes up to 20 percent of breast cancer patients, and is not treatable with estrogen-targeting drugs so patients are only left with the one thing they all loathe:  chemotherapy.   The reporter of the TV piece embedded in the online story, herself a breast cancer survivor, captured the excitement of the possibility of the vaccine by saying: “if this works, it could be a game changer.”

Hope and excitement are a good part of any story, but an outside perspective is absolutely mandatory.  This story had none.  No context, no caveats, no down-to-earth commentary that says:  “we’ve been searching for a breast cancer vaccine for over 20 years and, sorry to say, we’ve got nothing to show for it.”    Sadly, many patients and clinicians have watched this show before, offered a breakthrough that ends in disappointment. Don’t believe me?  This article begins with the hopeful line:  “Research on vaccines for cancer has exploded in the past five years.”  Its date?  1997.

The story undoubtedly has a special resonance for the USA Today staff who lost one of its star reporters to breast cancer. That story, delivered in a heartrending sidebar, tells about the life of Olivia Barker, a USA Today reporter who wowed her colleagues with her adventurous, entertaining reporting. Dead at 40 from “triple negative” breast cancer.

I don’t mind the music, the pizazz or having my heart strings strummed like a cheap ukulele.  I do, however, mind that these kinds of stories seem only about wowing patients and investors with glitzy new research.  I want more.  I want the guy with the bow tie, telling me in hushed tones that we have to be careful what we are promising because, er, well, um, sometimes, (especially when we’re talking breast cancer vaccines) those promises can’t be kept. And the “major breakthrough that could be coming” never arrives. Let’s at least do the trial first before jumping to conclusions.

The science is important.  It deserved a calmer analysis, and it demanded some independent perspectives.


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February 5, 2015 at 10:53 pm

Thank you for this.
TNCB Fighter