FOX, Banner MD Anderson hype Cuba cancer “breakthrough”

Some think finding the cure for cancer is like taking a rocket ship to the moon.

Others say the next huge breakthrough is waiting for us a mere 90 miles off the shores of Key West.

This story from a Fox News affiliate in Phoenix makes some breathtaking claims about a Cuban lung cancer vaccine that it says “could soon offer new hope for people battling the deadly disease in the United States.”

  • “could literally save millions of live” (sic)
  • “has been shown to significantly increase life expectancy”
  • “It’s cheap and it seems to be effective for a lot of patients”
  • “could be coming to the United States in a few years”

What evidence does the story provide to back up any of these sweeping claims?

Nada.

The closest the story gets to evidence are the comments of a Banner MD Anderson oncologist, Dr. Santosh Rao, who apparently has seen studies on the vaccine and proclaims himself “very excited” about the treatment. He says:

Most of the studies have shown that it does something, and that it extends life. The question will always come up, is it better than some of the new therapies that we have that also help the immune system function better.

His employer, Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center near Phoenix, was also very excited about the story and didn’t hesitate to promote the coverage on social media. The center’s Facebook post uncritically repeats the hype that’s at the core of the Fox story and adds that the vaccine is “potentially groundbreaking.”

Dr. Santosh Rao, medical oncologist, was featured on FOX 10 Phoenix in a story about a new, potentially groundbreaking,…

Posted by Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center on Thursday, March 3, 2016

 

I’m as excited as Dr. Rao about the prospect of an effective new cancer treatment coming to the United States from Cuba. Who wouldn’t be? But the Fox story that quoted him had a responsibility to back up its wildly optimistic claims with evidence. And it failed miserably on that score.

If Dr. Rao has seen the studies, they’re presumably not locked away in a prison cell in Guantanamo. Indeed, it took one of our contributors, breast cancer patient advocate Christine Norton, just a few clicks to find out more about the vaccine and its thus far limited supporting research.  For example, a 2015 Wired story — which seems to feature the most recent clinical data on the vaccine — reported that “A Phase II trial from 2008 showed lung cancer patients who received the vaccine lived an average of four to six months longer than those who didn’t.”

Norton wonders: “How does possibly extending life for 4-6 months in people younger than 60 lead Fox News to say this drug could ‘literally save millions of lives’?

MD Anderson admittedly may not have any control over the sensational Fox coverage that Dr. Rao contributed to. But it certainly should have put the brakes on when it shared the coverage via its own social media channels. Instead of educating and informing its community — many members of which will no doubt grasp at any straw of hope against this aggressive form of cancer — the treatment center inexplicably ran with and even pumped up the hype surrounding the vaccine.

“It’s one thing for a news organization to air this but quite another level of irresponsibility for Banner MD Anderson to have one of its oncologists tout the drug on air,” according to Norton. “What was the purpose of the story? Was it simply to generate traffic to Banner MD Anderson’s website & Facebook page? The drug has not been in clinical trials in the United States. A quick Google search showed that Roswell Park Institute in Buffalo, NY, has applied to do a clinical trial on CIMAVax. If approved, the trial will probably not begin until 2017 at the earliest. The trial itself will take years.”

I also asked one of our Phoenix-based contributors, Dr. Doug Campos-Outcalt, for his reaction to this story being aired in his own backyard, and he was as baffled as Norton by the coverage.

“Why MD Anderson would hype this alleged breakthrough before it has undergone controlled clinical trials is beyond my understanding,” said Campos-Outcalt. “The most effective preventative for lung cancer is smoking cessation and prevention. That of course does not make money for cancer treatment centers.”

Update 3/7/16: Steven Miles, MD, Professor of Medicine and Bioethics at the University of Minnesota, described the situation to me as a…

despicable use of social media…to entirely bypass the scientific literature and sell miracles. Anderson offers no data, no peer review, no discussion of what ‘significant’ benefit means, no information on who the drug has been tested on, no description of side effects.  Perhaps all of this information exists but medical science requires that the data becomes available before the barkers shill the product.

In addition, Cuba–a nation with skilled clinicians–has stated its intent to commercialize this product.  And yet, it is a nation that limits dissent to national priorities, does not have a free press or free elections all of which are needed to ensure the accuracy, accountability and transparency for government pronouncements of this nature.

Update 3/8/16: According to an article in Cancer Therapy Advisor, Cuban researchers recently reported results from a phase 3 study of this vaccine in 405 patients with advanced lung cancer. The vaccine increased median survival by 3 months compared with the control group, 12.43 vs. 9.4.


Thanks to Mike Thompson, MD, PhD — @mtmdphd on Twitter — for pointing us to this story. 

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Comments (6)

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Mike Thompson, MD, PHD

March 7, 2016 at 2:19 pm

It should be pointed out — probably repeatedly — that stopping smoking doesn’t help people that never smoked…

“Although tobacco smoking accounts for the majority of lung cancer, approximately 10% of patients with lung cancer in the United States are lifelong never smokers.”
REF: Subramanian & Govindan. J Clin Oncol. 2007 Feb 10;25(5):561-70. “Lung cancer in never smokers: a review.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=17290066

and

Although most lung cancers are a result of smoking, approximately 25% of lung cancer cases worldwide are not attributable to tobacco use, accounting for over 300,000 deaths each year. ”
REF: Sun et al. Nat Rev Cancer. 2007 Oct;7(10):778-90. “Lung cancer in never smokers–a different disease.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=17882278

Christina Zarcadoolas

March 8, 2016 at 11:46 am

I’m not surprised at the blustering of FOX’s reporting. And quite frankly we shouldn’t be surprised at MD Anderson either. They’re public facing promotional campaigns are all about the hype. They’re known for their take-no-prisoners, in-your-face declaration that cancer is on the run and they’re hell bent to “make cancer history.” http://bit.ly/1TIj2Jh

Liked your post and assigning it to my Health Communications Class

    Kevin Lomangino

    March 8, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Thank you Christina.

Steven Miles MD

March 14, 2016 at 2:30 pm

The real paper is odd. The corporation was evidently aware of monitoring and the study was prematurely terminated but if it was terminated for benefit to patients, there is no sign that the drug was given to the control arm. The results were not significant until they were manipulated by dropping participants who had not received for immunization (8 weeks survival) but control arm persons were dropped if they did not survive six weeks biasing results to the intervention side. Finally, although Dr. Rodriguez, the lead author, has a number of trials on the International Trials registry clinicaltrials(dot)gov, for some reason, I cannot find this trial or the report of its data. Interesting? A revolutionary advance? Hardly.
http://clincancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/early/2016/02/27/1078-0432.CCR-15-0855.full.pdf

Sandi Sherman

March 14, 2016 at 2:52 pm

The story as reported certainly hyped the facts, but the political overtones to your comments are suspect as well. Note that an agreement has been reached to conduct clinical trials of this vaccine in the U.S. at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, one of 45 NCI-designated comprehensive cancer centers in the U.S.
https://www.roswellpark.org/cancertalk/201509/bringing-cuba%E2%80%99s-lung-cancer-vaccine-states
According to the article posted there, “To date, CimaVax has been administered to 5,000 patients across the world, including 1,000 Cubans. Expansive clinical trials have been underway for some time now, with published data showing prolonged life (especially in patients <60 yrs old, with a mean overall survival of 18.53 months in the vaccinated patients compared to 7.55 months for the unvaccinated patients) when compared to standard care, with minimal vaccine-related toxicity."
Every objective article I have read on this say it is a drug that show promise and hopefully soon it can be tested in clinical trials in the U.S.

    Kevin Lomangino

    March 14, 2016 at 3:10 pm

    Sandi, the study you referenced in the Roswell Park story is the same small Phase II study (80 patients) referenced by our contributor Christine Norton. It apparently showed a survival advantage of 4-6 months — slightly longer in an even smaller subgroup of this already-small study. And the fact that it has been “administered to 5000 patients across the globe” means little to me — I can think of many useless healthcare interventions that have been administered to many more patients than that. Not that I am calling this vaccine useless — not at all. I just think the coverage of it is wildly inappropriate.