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