Viewers deserve credible reporting, but “60 Minutes” offers only credulous wonderment at a device that is not only uNPRoven, but also not very different from many other efforts to treat cancer.
The story is about patient and inventor John Kanzius and his proposal to use metallic particles and radio waves to heat and kill cancer cells. Similar approaches are not only being investigated by many researchers, the techniques are already being used to treat certain tumors, although not the type of leukemia that Kanzius had. However, viewers of this story are kept in the dark about both the lack of novelty and the lack of evidence to support any argument that there is news value to the segment.
Leslie Stahl and her producers certainly cannot claim that they lacked the airtime or resources to present the story with appropriate context and independent perspectives. This follow-up to an earlier in-depth report was over 16 minutes long and a year in the making.
The naïve and misleading report reflects either an astonishing ignorance of – or calculated disregard for – the basic tenets of reporting on medical research.
The device is at a very early stage of experimentation, so it’s understandable that costs wouldn’t be discussed.
Despite a litany of caveats near the end of the story, the overall portrayal of the Kanzius device as offering potentially revolutionary advantages over conventional treatments is without basis. It is appalling to see Stahl tease the audience by suggesting that John Kanzius’s temporarily improved health might be a result of his self-treatment with radio waves, rather than the expected outcome of conventional chemotherapy. Stahl marveled at the fact that Kanzius’s blood cell counts improved at one point; but since he had been through several rounds of treatment with conventional chemotherapy agents, the improvement should not have been any surprise.
The underlying premise of this device is that it cooks cancer cells by heating metallic nanoparticles. If the nanoparticles used in this approach collect in normal tissue, those tissues could also be cooked by the radio waves.
The researchers wrote in an article in the journal Cancer in 2007 that while rabbits in their tests did not appear to suffer any irreversible toxic effects, the safety of this approach in humans “cannot be assumed.” The portrayal of this experimental device as lacking potential harms is inaccurate.
This story presents no useful evidence.
A wire stuck into a hot dog and a fluorescent light bulb powered by radio waves are the stuff of elementary school science classes… and carnival side shows. Reporter Leslie Stahl refers to a handful of publications in scientific journals without explaining that the articles report preliminary work demonstrating only that the concept may be worth further exploration. Indeed, some of the publications provide evidence that the method of self-treatment used by John Kanzius would not work.
Since Stahl was apparently so impressed by Kanzius’s demonstration of his device causing a light bulb to glow, she’d probably love the many YouTube videos of people putting fluorescent bulbs in microwaves. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woBoHKLoJxI for example.) However, the makers of these videos aren’t suggesting people try climbing inside a microwave to treat cancer.
The segment didn’t dwell on cancer, but on the technology, so this criterion is not applicable in this case.
That journalists with the resources and airtime available to “60 Minutes” failed to present any independent experts or even to let viewers know about the patent and other financial interests of the people interviewed is just mind-boggling. Given the fact that there are literally thousands of scientific articles on related topics, it is mystifying that Stahl failed to present an iota of context or perspective from anyone without a personal stake in the device. (The comments of the pathologist in the piece don’t count, since he had no way of knowing whether the blood cell counts he looked at displayed the effects of Kanzius’s device or merely the expected results of chemotherapy.)
It is impossible to watch this story without reaching the conclusion that Stahl and the producers made a conscious decision to exclude any independent experts.
Not only does this story fail to discuss the range of treatment options available to patients with leukemia and other cancers, it broadcasts an egregious misrepresentation of the chemotherapy regimen given to John Kanzius by emphasizing the “horrible side effects” while failing to give standard treatment credit for Kanzius’s temporary remission.
The story also failed to mention that there are multitudes of experimental and proven cancer treatments that use targeted approaches that are conceptually similar to the Kanzius approach.
The story quotes one of the developers of the device as saying that the start of human clinical trials could begin within two to four years. Viewers are not given a clear explanation of the rudimentary stage of the investigation of this device.
Viewers would also likely be confused about the distinction between initiating clinical trials and actually bringing a product to market. When the researcher says they would “succeed,” he is apparently referring to initiating trials; but it is likely that many viewers believed he was predicting that ultimately the treatment would be successful.
This story stumbles badly by portraying the Kanzius device as revolutionary, when it is actually just one of many applications of well-known principles and techniques for treating cancer. For example, radiofrequency ablation (the technical term for the Kanzius approach) is already used to treat tumors in the liver and elsewhere when conventional surgery isn’t a good option. Indeed, searching www.pubmed.gov for studies of radiofrequency ablation of cancer yields almost 3,000 citations.
The added technique of using molecules that preferentially bind to cancerous cells in order to concentrate metallic nanoparticles within tumors is common to many targeted cancer treatments.
The story ignored vast swaths of current cancer research and treatment.
Stahl and the "60 Minutes" team apparently created this puffery without the assistance of press agents.