This is the kind of story that will prompt desperate cancer patients to demand access to “the cure they saw on TV,” only to be disappointed when they hear the full facts.
This small, early-stage trial is getting prominent play in a leading journal because it points the way toward innovative treatments. But as the journal’s editorial stresses, “New therapies bring new challenges into focus, and PARP inhibitors will be no exception.”
Unfortunately, viewers of this story were given the impression that all the challenges have already been vanquished.
This news story leaves viewers in the dark about the extensive financial ties between the researchers and the pharmaceutical company that makes the drug they are testing.
Even though the correspondent said this type of treatment could be on the market soon, the story does not discuss what the treatment might cost.
This story presents two trial participants as being practically cured by this experimental treatment after all conventional treatments had failed. Viewers would have no way of knowing that the actual journal article makes no claim that any patients have been cured, or that the trial was designed to merely look for safety problems and gather preliminary data about any initial effects of the treatment on tumors.
While emphasizing that patients in this trial did not report side effects of the magnitude often seen with some chemotherapy drugs, the story simply said the patients reported “little” nausea.
Indeed, while featuring one patient saying “I have strength, I have stamina,” the story failed to mention that about a third of the participants reported fatigue. Other reported side effects, including vomiting, taste alteration, anorexia, anemia, and low blood cell counts, were not mentioned in this story.
The story focuses on the tumor responses observed in some of the cancer patients, without making clear that the trial was a preliminary safety study that was not primarily designed to test the effectiveness of the treatment.
Other than mentioning that it was “a small study,” the story neglected or glossed over limitations in the trial or the hurdles that need to be overcome before this sort of treatment could enter clinical use. For example, not only did the correspondent fail to mention that tumors can develop resistance to PARP inhibition, he highlighted speculation that the treatment could be applied to a broad range of cancers, even though this study showed responses only among those patients with BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations in their tumors.
There was no mention of the limited scope and duration of the phase I trial or what sort of testing remains to be done. The correspondent presented this treatment as essentially proven, proclaiming “whatever else happens, these drugs look like they will eventually save thousands of lives.”
There was little discussion of the cancers themselves, so this criterion is N/A.
The story included a comment from a doctor who is not listed among the study authors, but viewers were not given information about her qualifications or her relationship to this or similar trials.
The New England Journal of Medicine article pointed out that this trial received some funding from AstraZeneca, which makes the drug that was studied. Several of the study authors (including the one quoted in this story) disclosed that they have received fees from AstraZeneca (and a pharmaceutical company purchased by AstraZeneca) or own stock in the companies or may receive other financial benefits from the development of the trial drug.
None of these financial arrangements was mentioned in the story.
This is a close call. The story does mention conventional chemotherapy; but throughout the report it presents the experimental drug as superior in every way. In addition, the correspondent touts the treatment as being applicable to many more cancers than is justified by the available evidence, thus inflating the value of the new drug in comparison to conventional treatments.
The correspondent claims this type of treatment could be available in one to two years. However, the trial was just a phase I safety study. It is unlikely that phase III trials capable of demonstrating treatment results could be completed within that brief time frame.
As the editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine explains, the reason the journal decided to publish an article on the “small, early-stage trial” is that it “points to a new direction in the development of anticancer drugs.”
It is the novelty of the basic approach that is the news, but this report warps that basic science advance into a premature claim of clinical effectiveness.
Does not appear to rely solely or largely on a news release.