The story had a primary focus of evaluating the evidence, raising some of the "mysterious ways" this drug works even in the headline. And saying "It does work, sort of" – in the third paragraph. But its strength is in how it educates readers about what confuses researchers about what they’ve seen, what it means, and how to explain it. Pithy quotes: "It’s not a home run…this is not going to cure prostate cancer." Cutting to the core of the editorial writer’s issue: "The way the study was done, he says, ‘does not allow one to conclude’ that Provenge is working because it mobilizes the immune system specifically against prostate cancer." Writing that doesn’t beat around the bush: "Deep in the data is further mystery…Nobody yet knows just how to explain these results."
Put this one on a shelf and pull it down anytime you need proof that journalists can scrutinize evidence (and get a 5-star score from us) in less than 500 words. Show this to journalism students.
The story itself only says "it’s pretty pricey." But those words provide a hyperlink to another NPR story that discloses the drug cost as $93,000. It would have taken the same amount of space to just state the cost in the current story. Why make people click away to get the cost in another story? Is the need to improve click rates driving this? Regardless, we’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt on this.
In a broad overview comment, it’s sufficient for the story to have stated "men with prostate cancer that no longer responds to hormone therapy (basically, chemical castration) lived about four months longer if they took Provenge than if they got placebo treatment."
No discussion of any potential harms found in the studies.
Excellent, understandable evaluation of the evidence. Thorough. Raises many important questions we haven’t seen in other stories. There are many angles one could take with the Provenge story. For example, ABC News chose a cost angle (but in so doing, still injected a glowing personal anecdote, something the NPR story thankfully didn’t.) Both of these angles are important. But the cost angle is low-hanging fruit – an easy target. Evaluating the evidence, as NPR did in this tight little story, can be difficult but is really important. Big props!
No disease-mongering. The story makes it clear the drug was tested in men with prostate cancer who no longer respond to hormone therapy.
Solid quotes from the written editorial accompanying the study in the New England Journal of Medicine and even an appropriately cautious quote from the lead author of the study.
The story says the drug performed "better than the only other approved treatment for such advanced cancers" and that "Other immunotherapy approaches are in the pipeline, along with fancier versions of drugs to block the hormones that feed prostate cancer."
The story is clear the drug was just approved by the FDA and that "Dendreon, the Seattle-based company that makes Provenge, says there’s a waiting list for the drug. The company estimates 100,000 American men have the kind of hormone-resistant, metastatic cancer the drug is approved to treat. But the company can only make enough at this point for 2,000 patients in the first year."
The story leads with: "After decades of dreaming about getting patients’ immune systems to fight cancer, immunotherapy is finally here." And later: "…after all, Provenge is just the first cancer immunotherapy on the market."
It’s clear this story didn’t rely on a news release.