This news release announces the European patent for a medical device that is designed to attract, trap and kill cancer cells. Ostensibly, the device could be used to detect early signs of metastasis in various forms of cancer, and potentially could find use in cancer treatment. However, the device’s utility at this point appears to be largely hypothetical. The release indicates that no clinical trials have been done; offers no information on benefits (or health risks) associated with such a device; and says nothing about the potential costs associated with such a device. Indeed, the release does not tell readers anything about the research that underlies the device. Based on the information in the release, the device appears to be — at this point — little more than a concept.
As the National Cancer Institute notes, “Cancer has a major impact on society in the United States and across the world.” Indeed, cancers claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of people each year in the United States alone. With that in mind, it is important to be cautious when announcing a new tool that “can be used for early diagnosis and treatment of metastasized cancer.” To be more specific, one should at the very least be prepared to provide meaningful information to support the claim. Securing a patent may be valuable — both financially and for the public good — but that value can only be realized if the relevant technology can be used in a clinical setting. This release offers more questions than answers, with the foremost question being: will the device work in people?
Cost is not mentioned. While it can be extremely difficult to place a precise cost on early stage medical technologies, the issue can be addressed in broader terms. Is the technology difficult to make? Can it be produced on a large scale? Are those questions that still need to be explored? This release neglects to do so, which is particularly problematic in a news release that is focused on the announcement of a patent. Patents are designed to secure intellectual property, allowing people and institutions to profit from their discoveries. As such, this release is effectively about business. Failing to address potential costs, even in the most general terms, is a significant oversight.
Benefits are not put into any numerical context. In fact, benefits are discussed only in the most general of terms, referring to “early diagnosis” and the idea of “recruit[ing] the cancer cells into a small area where we can treat them with less overall side effects to the whole body.” However, the release also raises questions about how viable these potential benefits may be in human cancer patients. We’ll address this further under “Quality of Evidence.”
Potential harms are not addressed. That may be for reasons that we’ll address under “Quality of Evidence.”
The release provides little information to support its claims regarding the “cancer trap” that has been patented. There are two statements in the release that are particularly worth highlighting. First, the release states that: “The trap has been tested in the lab and proved effective on many kinds of cancer cells, including melanoma, prostate cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, leukemia and esophageal cancer.” What sort of testing are they referring to? In vitro testing, wherein the technology was tested outside of a living organism? In vivo testing in an animal model, such as lab mice? Was this work peer reviewed or published anywhere?
Second, the release quotes the lead researcher as saying: “We are hoping to move toward clinical trials in the next few years as this technology could potentially significantly increase the lifespan of cancer patients.” This statement would seem to indicate that the technology has not yet been tested in clinical trials. In other words, this statement seems to tell readers that the technology has never been tested in humans. That would mean we have no idea whether this technology could benefit human cancer patients, or what risks it may pose to patients. If this work has been done, the release needs to reference it.
No disease mongering here. The release explains the rationale for the device and notes that it would be “complementary to current cancer treatments.”
While the release does mention the institution’s overall level of funding for cancer research, it does not say where any of that funding came from — much less who funded the “cancer trap” research. Federal agencies? The private sector? Nonprofit organizations?
The release offers only the broadest possible language regarding diagnosis and treatment of metastasizing cancers. We appreciate that it would be impossible to provide a detailed overview of the existing diagnosis and treatment options in a news release. However, we would expect some discussion of how the “cancer trap” would compare to existing techniques and technologies. This is missing.
The release appears to be in conflict with itself here. On the one hand, the first paragraph talks about the patenting of an implantable medical device. On the other hand, the release also tells us that the researchers are “hoping to move toward clinical trials in the next few years.” The first paragraph may make many readers think this is a prototype that may be close to the market. But the lack of a timeline for clinical trials suggests that this could be many years away from clinical use (if it reaches clinical use at all). This lack of clarity is problematic.
The language in the release is so broad that it is difficult to know what to compare it to. However, a quick search has no trouble finding other research efforts aimed at “trapping” cancer cells, such as this 2015 paper, this 2017 paper, or these news releases from 2014 and 2016. What sets this newly patented “cancer trap” apart? The release doesn’t tell us, because the release provides no context related to previous work in the field.
The release tells readers that “This cancer trap can be used for early diagnosis and treatment of metastasized cancer.” The release also says “This method is effective for both diagnosing and treating metastasis cancer and can be used in combination with traditional chemotherapy and radiation therapy” and “We have also found it very effective in late stage cancers to stop the spread of the disease and to prolong lifespan.” Those are bold statements. But the release provides no information to support them and in fact raises doubt about their veracity when they state that no clinical trials have been done. Instead, the release also includes language that raises questions about the extent to which anyone knows how well the technology will perform in human patients. If the researchers have evidence that this technology is a significant advance for cancer diagnosis and treatment, the release doesn’t share it. While it may be interesting and newsworthy that a patent has been issued for this idea, this type of coverage is misdirected. It would be better covered in a brief report that states that the patent have been issued based on the hypothesis and suggests next steps in research.