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New test under development could find single cancer cell in blood


2 Star


New test under development could find single cancer cell in blood

Our Review Summary

Researchers and company cut a deal to support research on a test that finds circulating tumor cells.

Company announces the deal.

News story regurgitates the company announcement without examination.

If CNN was going to rewrite someone else’s work, it would have been better off rewriting Dr. Len Lichtenfeld’s blog post from the American Cancer Society website, since it gave a cautious, analytical overview that this piece lacked. Lichtenfeld was quoted at the very end of this piece, but the quote was far less meaty than what appeared on his blog.  A case in which medical blogger outshines international news network?


Why This Matters

Cancer is a leading cause of death. No disease incites greater fear. There is great demand for tests that could improve cancer outcomes. Stories about potential advances in this area should be careful not to make promises that are not supported by evidence and they should also clearly outline the risks and limitations of testing.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not offer any information about costs. It refers to an early technology for detecting circulating tumor cells marketed by the same company, but then doesn’t tell readers how much the existing test costs.

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

Not Satisfactory

As mentioned above, the story regurgitates unsupported promises that early detection of cancer is inherently beneficial. But it gives no data on how the test has fared in studies to date.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

There is no mention of harms, not even the obvious possibility that this sort of test could detect cells that don’t actually present a serious health threat or aren’t susceptible to treatment. It perpetuates the myth that early detection is always beneficial and turns a blind eye to the harms of overtreatment.

By comparison, see what Dr. Susan Love said on the ABC News website:

“Having the cells in the bloodstream does not necessarily mean that the cancer will spread and kill you. Just because you find them does not mean you know what to do with the information. …We all have cancer cells in our body that are dormant,” Love said. “We need to be careful not to over react to the presence of cancer cells when the treatment may actually be worse than the cure.”


Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not tell readers anything about the state of the evidence that is currently available.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


No overt disease-mongering.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

Too much of the story comes from conflicted sources.  There is input from Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society at the very end.  But the story fails to mention that the American Cancer Society has supported research in this area.  And the story didn’t even include the much stronger types of comments Lichtenfeld made on his own blog, such as: 

“…this is an announcement of a research deal.  Nothing more, nothing less.  It is not a new breakthrough. It is not something that has been proven effective in improving cancer detection and treatment.  Not that it is anything less than stunning to develop and demonstrate that this technology works – but as with all research it is a giant step to go successfully from the laboratory phase of development to the clinical phase of making a real difference in patients’ lives. So that in essence is what the fuss is all about: the researchers have signed a contract with a company to further develop this research and determine whether in fact it can be applied successfully to large numbers of patients in a more efficient and less expensive manner.”

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

There is no meaningful discussion of any testing alternatives – only brief mention of another test from the same company making this new announcement – but without any details about how the two are different – much less anything about any other testing research.  As Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society reminds readers: “…we are seeing many tests that are being touted as important in answering various questions about the future behavior of an individual’s cancer but we are not seeing the type of validation we need to know whether or not such claims are in fact clinically relevant.  There are so many markers and genetic tests out there that even the most knowledgeable experts in the clinical treatment of patients with cancer are having a hard time separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff.”


Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story quotes a researcher saying it “it will take at least five years before the test is on the market” but treats that as a fait accompli. But the story doesn’t make clear the staggering amount of testing that remains ahead.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


It was hard to judge the story on this criterion. It includes a quote that calls the technology “new” and then in the next paragraph tells readers of a test the same company has been selling since 2004 that detect circulating cancer cells. There is no explanation of what the difference is between the “new” test and the one that has been available for several years. Nonethless, we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Satisfactory

This story is merely a condensed version of a news release. Some quotes appear to be lifted directly from the news release.

“Veridex, LLC Announces Collaboration to Develop Next-Generation Circulating Tumor Cell (CTC) Technology with Massachusetts General Hospital”

Total Score: 3 of 10 Satisfactory


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