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Claim that milk protein alleviates chemotherapy side effects based on study of just 12 people


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Milk protein shown to alleviate chemotherapy side effects

Our Review Summary

milkThe very preliminary study mentioned in this news release relies on only 12 cancer patients filling out an unvalidated questionnaire about whether taking lactoferrin supplements improved their sense of taste and smell.

This is a weak news release about a weak observational study  because it provides no supporting data, never mentions how small the study is, and doesn’t explain the basic design or multiple limitations of the study.

To then write a headline broadly claiming alleviation of chemotherapy side effects and state the “findings could bring relief to millions of patients undergoing cancer treatment” is a textbook example of overreaching and unjustified hype with significant potential for misleading — not “bringing relief” to millions.



Why This Matters

What this news release does do well is establish that altered taste and smell in cancer patients is a very real problem with very real consequences. An effective therapy could help millions of people and potentially make millions of dollars for those who develop such a treatment.

Dangling headlines of false hope without supporting evidence is not just irresponsible, it’s potentially unethical.

Avoiding this egregious level of misinformation is not difficult. At the very least it could be addressed by including study results and clearly explaining to readers what the strengths and limitations of those findings are. After that, double check your headline and ask yourself: is it more eye-catching or more evidence-based?


Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The cost of lactoferrin supplements is not mentioned.

The 250 mg capsules used in this study were supplied by Jarrrow Formulas who list the capsule price as 50 cents. Therefore, three-a-day dosing — as tested in the study — would cost $1.50.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

A study author is quoted as speculating that lactoferrin …

“elicits changes in the salivary protein profiles in cancer patients — changes that may be influential in helping protect taste buds and odor perception” — which in turn — might “reduce TSA (“taste and smell abnormalities”), restoring their ability to enjoy food during a time in which nutrition can play a key role in recovery.”

Although the logic here appears sound there is no data included to support this chain of eventualities.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No mention is made of potential harms from lactoferrin.

Readers might be curious about the potential for intoxication (animal studies have been inconclusive in this area) or intolerance.

WebMD mentions:

“Lactoferrin can cause diarrhea. In very high doses, skin rash, loss of appetite, fatigue, chills, and constipation have been reported.”

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

Several problems here that aren’t mentioned in the release:

  • Only 12 patients completed the taste questionnaires and saliva analysis.
  • The study design cannot conclude that lactoferrin is responsible for the improved taste/smell reported by the small group of cancer patients, nor can it account for possible confounding influences on subjects’ taste/smell — such as diet and previous smoking.
  • The reliability and reproducibility of the taste/smell questionnaire (devised by the authors) has not been validated by other researchers.

Not addressing these limitations is a major weakness of this release and, therefore, a huge disservice to readers.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?


This news release does not disease monger. Rather, it clearly states that TSA in cancer patients is a common problem, and can be detrimental to cancer patients’ recovery.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

Funding sources are excluded.

Careful review of the author disclosures included in the study reveal no significant conflicts of interest.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

It’s rather misleading to claim “until now, there have been no reliable therapies” for TSA, because this study cannot establish lactoferrin as a “reliable therapy” based on only 12 patients.

Many approaches have been tried to help cancer patients cope with altered taste/smell including: dietary changes, Zinc supplementation, and agents which increase saliva production, to name a few.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

It wasn’t made clear enough in the release that lactoferrin supplements are available online. Many readers might erroneously think the only source is drinking milk.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

Using an agent that binds iron is not novel.

Also, the release does not make it clear if there are other agents currently being investifated that “elicit changes in the salivary protein profiles in cancer patients that may be influential in helping to protect taste buds and odor perception” as lactoferrin is postulated (but not proven) to do.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Not Satisfactory

A preliminary study that relies heavily upon a highly subjective questionnaire completed by just 12 patients does NOT justify a headline/subhead like this:

“Milk protein shown to alleviate chemotherapy side effects: Findings could bring relief to millions of patients undergoing cancer treatment.”

“Our results suggest lactoferrin may be developed as an effective dietary supplement to treat TSA caused by chemotherapy and increase the expression of salivary proteins.”

This statement is barely supported by the data and the extrapolation made in the news release is completely unfounded.

Total Score: 1 of 10 Satisfactory


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