AAAS stories hype immunotherapy, cancer saliva test







“Very large tumors simply melt away”

All of these words were used in news stories to describe immunotherapy research results presented at the big annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC.   Results, that, according to the BBC, have also “not been published or reviewed and two patients are said to have died from an extreme response.”

We’ve written before about predictions of cancer cures coming out of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

The new excitement was heralded in a Valentine’s Day special news release from the Hutch.  That release did include this line:

“The studies are funded by Juno Therapeutics, which was initially formed on technology from researchers at Fred Hutch…(and elsewhere)…to commercialize promising immunotherapies.”

You’d almost think that Juno – and not the Hutch – should have issued that release, since it was a Juno “scientific founder” and stockholder (who’s also a Hutch oncologist) that made the AAAS presentation and whose work was featured in the news release.

Regardless of who sent out the news, it received a great deal of news attention. It was so exciting that the American Cancer Society apparently felt compelled to temper that enthusiasm with a blog post that included this quote from Chief Medical Officer Dr. Otis Brawley:

“It is important to use caution in raising the hopes of patients based on early data may or may not come to fruition.”

The Cancer Research UK organization also weighed in with, “Immunotherapy cancer cure headlines distract from fascinating science.”  A very thoughtful post, including this line:

“This could be an exciting development, although it’s still too early to tell how long the patients on this trial will retain these reengineered immune cells.  And with some patients already relapsing, it’s clear there is a lot more to learn.”

So, instead of the words at the top of the post, the reigning headline themes should perhaps be:



“Too Early to Tell”

Now, let me turn it over to Alan Cassels for a look at another AAAS hot news item.

Cassels 100x86Hyping the promise of a quick saliva test for cancer generates few headlines in the US (so far)

Even though the test is being developed in the US, and would be a huge step forward in the development of rapid diagnostics of cancer, there was little US mainstream news coverage of an American announcement this week about a 10-minute cancer test, which can be administered through a single drop of saliva. That didn’t stop other big papers around the world including Canada’s National Post, Australia’s ABC Online, the UK’s Daily Mail and UK’s The Telegraph from putting out a highly flawed cookie-cutter article, repeating the unchallenged claims by Professor David Wong of the UCLA School of Dentistry.  

He presented findings at the annual AAAS meeting, claiming that it is possible to detect tumour DNA when is it circulating in bodily fluids, which was referred to in this coverage as “an approach known as a liquid biopsy.”

For me, much of the mainstream news coverage I saw rang almost every alarm bell possible about how NOT to report on a screening or diagnostic test:  No research evidence, testing or evaluation to speak of, no outside verification or commentary, no context about the complexity of screening for cancers, no discussion of the issues of sensitivity and specificity of testing, no discussion of the harms involved in subjecting huge numbers of people to tests that could cause genuine and widespread panic in the population. Ok, don’t get me going. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring.  It’s at least a five alarm fire here.   Instead we get this:  “the saliva test is 100 per cent accurate and is so simple that it could be carried out at a pharmacist, the dentist or even in the privacy of someone’s own home if they were concerned.”

Really, I wondered?  Right now we know that the blood tests to detect signs of cancer can produce false positives, yet according to the Telegraph, “Professor Wong’s tests have shown that just a single drop of saliva contains enough data to give a definitive diagnosis as soon as a tumour develops.”

Thankfully the reports did remind the readers attracted to the article with its click-bait style headlines that it’s too early to go shopping for this non-invasive, cheap test (claimed to only cost only £15, or about $21 US) because it may be at least two years away from approval by the US FDA and it may be available in the UK as early as “the end of the decade.”

Time to stand down the fire crews and let this blaze pass unnoticed here in the US.

(Alan Cassels is an editorial contributor to and the author of Seeking Sickness: Medical Screening and the Misguided Hunt for Disease.)

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Comments (5)

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Marc Beishon

February 17, 2016 at 2:47 pm

The AAAS announcement is a triumph of style over substance – the AAAS being a platform to get a lot of publicity. Adoptive T-cell therapy has already had success in a selected few metastatic melanoma patients, but the researchers haven’t shouted about it like this. In melanoma, it’s a very expensive experimental process that requires a fit patient who will probably require intensive care.

Marc Beishon

February 17, 2016 at 3:06 pm

And on the saliva test the write ups are ludicrous – the initial use is for EGFR status in known non-small cell lung cancer for a decision to give gefitinib. In fact they have been beaten to it – there is an approved blood test and kit in Europe now for this. And it is still preferable to get tissue if possible. But of course there is a secondary mutation then that will need to be tracked, so these tests do have promise if they work. Blood though is probably going to be the main fluid.

Tim Church

February 18, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Otis Brawley is a treasure. I love his skepticism and bluntness.

Terry Parrish

February 20, 2016 at 1:14 am

Interesting perspective regarding the immunotherapy research reporting. To deny the significance of this finding is ridiculous. Statistically significant + large effect = HUGE.

    Gary Schwitzer

    February 20, 2016 at 6:54 am


    Not sure to whom you were directing your comment about being “ridiculous”: Dr. Brawley, Cancer Research UK, other commenters, or me?

    There is nothing in what we wrote that “denies the significance of this finding.”

    Our project reviews the quality of media messages about health care and biomedical research. Our focus was on journalism that, in our opinion, and in the opinion of leading cancer authorities cited, should have emphasized that these were early, unpublished data. We have a primer on our site – for journalists and for the general public – with caveats on reporting research results presented at scientific meetings. This is an important issue in health/medical/science journalism, and one the general public needs to understand.

    Gary Schwitzer