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Strong accounting of early study on colorectal cancer drug — but was a release really warranted?

Experimental drug guadecitabine found safe in patients with colorectal cancer

Our Review Summary

colorectal cancerThe news release discusses the findings of a small study that was designed to assess the safety of the experimental drug guadecitabine for use in conjunction with the conventional drug irinotecan to treat metastatic colorectal cancer. Phase 1 studies are designed to evaluate safety, observe side effects and identify the maximum tolerated dose (MTD). As such, the toxicity profile would be expected to be rather high. The study found that guadecitabine did cause some adverse side effects. The most concerning being low white blood cell count (neutropenia) in 73% of the subjects.  One subject died from infection related to the low white blood cell count.  However, the study also reported that there were positive effects with some patients — although the release clearly notes that this study was not designed to assess beneficial outcomes. Calling the drug “safe” in the headline may be a bit of a stretch, but otherwise the release does a good job of explaining the study, describing the fact that the drug is in the earliest stages of clinical testing, potential harms, and the study’s ties to the company that manufactures guadecitabine.

 

Why This Matters

According to the National Cancer Institute, colorectal cancer is the third most common type of cancer in the United States for both men and women. And while 5-year survival statistics are good for colorectal cancer patients who are diagnosed while the cancer is still localized (90.1 percent), the 5-year survival rate drops to 13.5 percent for patients whose colorectal cancer has metastasized. The development of new treatment options for patients with metastatic colorectal cancer is worth covering. However, this early trial is small, and so preliminary, that one wonders about the potential value. Presumably the ongoing phase II trial mentioned in the release will shed more substantial light on the potential benefits associated with the guadecitabine-irinotecan combination. Perhaps a news release would be more fitting once those results are in.

Criteria

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

Not Applicable

We’ll rate this “Not Applicable” given the very early nature of the study and the fact that guadecitabine is clearly still far from approval for treating colorectal cancer so it would be difficult to put a precise dollar figure on it. It’s worth noting, however, that guadecitabine is also being considered for use in treating acute myeloid leukemia (AML) — and is much further along in development for that clinical application. In fact, there is already discussion about whether the potential benefits associated with using guadecitabine to treat AML outweigh the fact that other drugs are available in generic form (and are therefore less expensive). In short, while we don’t expect a release to place a dollar amount on the use of guadecitabine, we always like to see the issue of cost addressed in some way.

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

Satisfactory

The release does a good job here in two ways. First, the release makes clear that the goal of this study was not to assess benefits, but to assess potential harms. That places the findings — and the study design — in context. Second, the release notes that 15 of the 22 patients had at least one imaging scan to track the extent and location of their cancers. Twelve of those 15 patients had “stable” disease, while one saw a 30 percent decrease in the size of the tumors.

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

Satisfactory

The headline is problematic, but we’ll talk about that under the “Unjustifiable Language” criterion. The rest of the release does a good job of describing potential harms. The release discusses eight potential harms, defines them and offers numbers on all of them (e.g., “two patients developed thrombocytopenia, a lowered count of blood-clotting platelets”). That’s very good. Two things would have made it even better. First, the release could have included an explanation of what the observed adverse effects actually mean. For example, how severe was the thrombocytopenia? And how much of a risk does that pose to a patient’s health — are we talking about the potential for bruising easily? Or a high risk of bleeding to death? Second, it wasn’t clear if the dose of guadecitabine was related to observed effects. I.e., were patients who received higher doses of guadecitabine more likely to exhibit adverse effects?

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

Satisfactory

The release does a nice job here. The release sets the tone in its first sentence, which begins with: “In a small, phase I clinical trial…”. The release clearly explains the goals of the clinical trial, the number and type of patients involved, and the study design. The only thing that could have made things more clear would be if the release had told readers the size of the doses each of the four study groups received — and whether dose size was related to observed effects.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering here.

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

Satisfactory

The release clearly states that the study was supported by Astex Pharmaceuticals, which manufactures guadecitabine.

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

Not Applicable

There are a lot of drugs, and drug combinations, that are approved for use in colorectal cancer chemotherapy. Given that the release explicitly states that the study was not done to assess the potential benefits of guadecitabine, we don’t expect it to compare the drug’s performance to those other drugs.

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

Satisfactory

The release makes clear that this was a preliminary trial and that a phase II trial is ongoing. That’s good. In addition, the release states: “Guadecitabine is an experimental drug that has not been approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” That’s great. We wish all releases were this straight-forward about drug/treatment availability.

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

Not Satisfactory

As noted above, there are a lot of drugs and combinations approved for use in colorectal cancer chemotherapy. The release does a good job of explaining how guadecitabine may act against colorectal cancer.  There are currently two FDA approved drugs that are classified as DNA methyltransferase inhibitors; decitabine (Dacogen) and azacitidine (Vidaza).  Both had been used in clinical trials in the treatment of colon cancer.

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

Not Satisfactory

The bulk of the release is very good in this regard, but the first thing readers see is the headline. That doesn’t mean the headline is more important, but it does mean that the headline is subject to additional scrutiny. And the headline here reaches too far. Here’s the headline: “Experimental drug guadecitabine found safe in patients with colorectal cancer.” Here’s an excerpt from lower down in the release: “16 patients experienced neutropenia, a low count of the infection-fighting white blood cells called neutrophils; five patients with neutropenia had fevers; three patients became anemic; and two patients developed thrombocytopenia, a lowered count of blood-clotting platelets. Other side effects included diarrhea (three patients), fatigue (two patients) and dehydration (two patients). There was one death during the study, possibly resulting from febrile neutropenia caused by the treatment.” The word “safe” is relative when discussing chemotherapy treatment, but when most readers see something described as “safe” they assume that means it won’t harm them. For that reason, it’s a stretch to apply the word “safe” to any treatment in which a sample size of 22 patients is associated with this many adverse outcomes, and may have contributed to a death.

Total Score: 6 of 8 Satisfactory

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