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Fish Oil Seems to Help Cancer Patients Preserve Muscle

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2 Star

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Fish Oil Seems to Help Cancer Patients Preserve Muscle

Our Review Summary

The story used quotes given in a news release – and was wrong in stating that the findings were already published in the Feb. 28 online edition of Cancer.

The story was published early this morning – but at 2 pm Central time, we checked with the editorial office of the journal and the study had not yet been posted online.  That’s not the journalists’ responsibility but it is their responsibility to be accurate and for hours the story was inaccurate because it said the study was online when it was not.  So any reader who may have wanted to track down the article couldn’t – for hours at least.  at 4:30 pm Central time, we see that the study is now posted online.  This obviously raises issues not only about the journalism process but about the journal and its news releases processes, since the journal’s news release also erroneously jumped the gun in stating that the study was posted online far before it had been.

More importantly, the story never discussed the limitations of a small (16 people in the active arm of the trial), short-term (10-week) study.

 

Why This Matters

This is an important area of research.  The researchers wrote: “more than 65% of advanced nonsmall cell lung cancer cases do not respond to first-line chemotherapy, and 1-year survival rates are low.”  But this story didn’t evaluate the quality of the evidence, didn’t give enough context on other research in this field, and didn’t report on limitations of such prelminary work.  Yet it said this “raises hope.”  That’s the kind of statement that should probably await more evidence in bigger, longer studies.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No discussion of cost for the mega doses of fish oil used in the study.

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

Not Satisfactory

The weight loss figures for the two groups were given.  But the muscle mass figures were given in percentages, which is clumsy.  Rather than 70% in the fish oil group kept their pre-chemo muscle mass, why not say 11 out of 16.  And rather than less than 30% in the standard care group, why not just say 7 of 24? (Or whatever the actual numbers were.)

But let’s drop back to the big picture.  Rather than merely reporting numbers, why didn’t the story report on what difference these results may have had in peoples’ lives, if any?  Or is that impossible to gauge after just a 10-week study?  If so, perhaps that, too, should have been discussed because it again reflects on the limitations of such a small, short-term study.

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

Not Satisfactory

The independent perspective from the Texas dietitian did include this: “But I would caution that the amount of pure concentrated fish oil supplement the people in this study were given is a lot. Much much more than any recommended dietary allowance, along the lines of two to three servings of fish per week.”  But neither that comment nor any other line in the story explicitly mentioned the possibility of harm from the mega doses. Is it possible there could be interactions with drugs the lung cancer patients were taking?

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

Not Satisfactory

Inadequate.  There is no discussion of the limitations of such a small (only 16 people in active arm of the trial), short-term (10-week) study.  Instead, the story goes right on to talke about “it raises hope.”  People with cancer will often ask for the facts and will decide themselves where they invest their hope.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease-mongering.  If anything, the story should have provided more background on nonsmall cell lung cancer.

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

Satisfactory

Despite what we just said in the “news release” criterion above, we will give the story a satisfactory score for seeking an independent perspective, but we wonder what that dietitian reacted to:  the study itself or just a news release?  Barely satisfactory.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story quoted the researcher from a news release saying “This holds great promise, because currently there is no effective treatment for cancer-related malnutrition.”  But there was no discussion of any other research or any other approaches to cancer-related malnutrition.  So this claim of novelty by the researcher was never explored or substantiated. This is NOT the only research in this field, and the story could have included at least a line about other work.

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

Satisfactory

There isn’t any question about the availability of fish oil supplements.  More importantly, the independent perspective from dietitian Lona Sandon pointed out that the amount of concentrated fish oil supplement used in the study was much more than any recommended dietary allowane.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story quoted the researcher from a news release saying “This holds great promise, because currently there is no effective treatment for cancer-related malnutrition.”  But there was no discussion of any other research or any other approaches to cancer-related malnutrition.  So this claim of novelty by the researcher was never explored or substantiated.

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

Not Satisfactory

Mixed bag but we must give an unsatisfactory score because the story lifted researcher quotes from a news release and apparently didn’t interview any of the researchers.

Granted, the story sought an independent perspective, but the entire story was apparently based on a news release, not on any independent interviewing of the research team.

Total Score: 3 of 10 Satisfactory

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