As both stories note, researchers have been trying to find a way to use genetically engineered cells to fight cancer for 20 years, making even a small study like this interesting news. Both stories sounded some cautionary notes, but Reuters could have more thoroughly shown that the study’s results were promising but not proof that a cure for leukemia is within sight.
While WebMD missed the cost component, Reuters smartly raised this issue and discussed how future research will be funded. “All of the funding for the University of Pennsylvania’s gene therapy work has come from the academic community, but the work is expensive. ‘We are looking for corporate partners as we head into Phase II trials,’ Kalos said.”
As in the WebMD story, this story stated that, “Two participants in the Phase I trial have been in remission for up to a year. A third had a strong anti-tumor response, and his cancer remains in check.” The WebMD story provided more details, though.
The story gave short shrift to potential harms. The WebMD story stated more plainly that patients suffered debilitating side effects and, in one case, had to be treated with steroids that may have hindered the effectiveness of the cancer therapy.
The story allowed the study’s authors, who are understandably excited by the findings, to make overly effusive statements that overshadow some of the more cautionary notes in the story. For example, the story quotes Dr. Michael Kalos saying, “We put a key onto the surface of the T-cells that fits into a lock that only the cancer cells have.” The story then goes on to say that the patients “had to be treated with an immunity-boosting drug since the targeted molecule, CD-19, is also present on certain normal immune-system cells.” That doesn’t sound like a key that only fits cancer. The story could have overtly addressed this dissonace to help explain it to readers who may have been confused.
The story did not engage in disease-mongering.
Both stories cited just one outside source. The Reuters story, though, did a superior job here by quoting someone who had some words of caution. Dr. Walter Urba of the Providence Cancer Center in Portland warned that “the long-term viability of the treatment is still unknown.”
We were surprised to see no mention of radiation, chemotherapy or bone marrow transplants in this story. At a minimum, the WebMD story discussed bone marrow transplants.
The story does note the study is a Phase 1 trial iin the 4th sentence and also notes that researchers intend to enroll four more subjects. WebMD did a better job showing that, even for people hoping to enroll in a trial for this therapy, the odds will be long.
We wish stories would take for granted that readers know what Phase I and Phase II means.
Satisfactory job establishing the novelty – even in the first line of the story.
Neither story relied on this University of Pennsylvania news release.