Are the clinical trial results for breast cancer drug taselisib ‘incredibly exciting’ or ‘disappointing’?

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Joy Victory is Deputy Managing Editor of She tweets as @thejoyvictory.

The recent publicity around Roche’s drug taselisib is a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure book: Depending on what news release or news article you read, you’d likely have very different conclusions about the drug’s performance in a recent clinical trial.

breast cancerPresented at ASCO18, the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, the phase 3 trial tested whether the drug, a type of PI3K inhibitor, could slow cancer growth when added to hormone treatment for women with estrogen receptor–positive breast cancers.

The news release issued by ASCO leaned toward positive framing (especially the headline) with some caveats: The drug worked, but modestly, only halting cancer growth (known as “progression-free survival” or PFS) for about two months longer than hormone therapy alone. It also carried the “risk of considerable side effects.”

The depiction from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, where the study’s lead author is based, was more glowing. Their PR team deemed the drug “effective.” A photo caption even tells readers “MSK Physician-in-Chief José Baselga says the new results are ‘incredibly exciting’ for improving the treatment of advanced breast cancer.”

These talking points from the two news releases ran mostly unchecked in HealthDay’s story on the study, which was picked up by U.S. News & World Report.

ASCO18Readers of these stories would have no idea that, in reality, the findings were so disappointing that Roche, the manufacturer, issued a statement that it is “scrapping development plans.”

“We will not be pursuing an FDA submission for taselisib based on the data presented at ASCO,” Roche said in a statement.

This takeaway was picked up by Reuters News. Readers of this story will learn right off the bat that the results were underwhelming, and later, that the trial had a high drop-out rate because many women couldn’t tolerate the side effects.

This wildly different take from Memorial Sloan Kettering vs. Reuters caught the eye of oncologist Glen J. Weiss, director of Phase I Clinical Research at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center:

Stage four breast cancer patient Andrea Zinn, was following the ASCO headlines via Twitter this weekend. The Wisconsin resident said she’s learned to be cautious about trial results after realizing that many exclude men, patients with brain metastasis, and patients who have already received a lot of other treatments.

‘We want more than an additional 2 months’

“The goal is to have a positive outcome so the drug comes to market–not just so patients can use it, but for profits as well,” she told me via Twitter messages.

She added, “the study was a bust in my eyes because for me, an additional 8 weeks of progression-free survival is nothing,” referring to taselisib’s lackluster performance in the clinical trial. She’d like to see news stories spend more time explaining what that means to cancer patients.

“That’s more time with family, friends and a chance to experience life,” she said. “We want more than an additional 2 months. I hardly think any drug can be counted as a success until we are getting six months or more of PFS.”

As for the headlines, Zinn said, “I feel like these studies are getting hyped up and then the results come out and so many are disappointing…now it feels like we’re back to the drawing board on research. It’s hard as the patient to feel any urgency around that.”

More ASCO 2018 meeting coverage: 

ASCO 2018: How a major medical meeting uses embargoes to shape the news, and what the consequences may be

As world’s largest cancer conference gets underway, keep these three tweets in mind

ASCO pumps up a one-sided view of lung cancer screening: Here’s what most of the coverage missed

A hyped news release gets revised at ASCO: Did it lead to improved coverage from journalists?

Questions about a ‘simple blood test’ to screen for cancer prompt revealing answer: It’s complicated

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