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Gene Therapy Cures Adult Leukemia


4 Star


Gene Therapy Cures Adult Leukemia

Our Review Summary

Despite an incorrect headline and some overly effusive quotes, this story outperformed the competition from Reuters in presenting the findings from a very small but promising study into a new treatment for the most prevalent form of leukemia. The story broke down the science behind the study in clear terms, explored the side effects of the treatment and painted a realistic picture of the difficulties in translating these initial findings into a clinical therapy. We wish the story had avoided phrases such as “amazing success” and “absolutely dramatic,” even in quotes. Some of these descriptors were over-the-top compared to most of the content of the story. It declares “Gene Therapy Cures Adult Leukemia,” while in the story itself it says, “Doctors hate to declare a cure until patients have been cancer-free for at least five years.”


Why This Matters

As noted by both of the stories we reviewed, 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 WebMD did a better job overall of helping readers see that the study’s findings were promising but not proof that a cure for leukemia is around the corner. This makes the WebMD headline all the more unfortunate because the body of the story is full of much more specific and relevant information.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Unlike the Reuters story, this story did not discuss costs.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story described very well the specific experiences of the patients who were involved in the study. It showed how two were in full remission and one was in partial remission.

But someone at WebMD has to take responsibility for that headline and the repeated reference to “cure”  that is bothersome.  Even when the story finally comes around to asking “Is he cured?” it still fails to directly address the unknowns and uncertainties. “Cure” is such a loaded term – it is almost unhelpful in discussing such research.

Even if investigators choose to use that term, journalists have an obligation to tackle the age-old baggage and consumer confusion that comes with it.  This story started to try to do this, but fell short in our eyes.

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


In a three-person study, it’s difficult to quantify harms or benefits beyond just describing what happened to each patient. The WebMD story, though, did a better job of presenting the very real side effects of the study, even showing that the treatments for the side effects may have hampered the effectiveness of the cancer therapy. “The treatment was not a walk in the park for patients. One of the three patients became so ill from the treatment that steroids were needed to relieve his symptoms. The steroid rescue may be why this patient had only a partial remission.”

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


This story was superior to the Reuters story in evaluating the quality of the evidence. For example, it said right in lead that the study was only on three patients. It also provided more qualifiers for the findings than the Reuters story. It said, for example, “Although the CAR T cells in the study were designed to fight CLL, there’s good reason to hope they can be effective in other forms of cancer. The catch is that it can work only on tumor cells that carry markers flagging them for destruction. Normal cells that carry the same markers will also be destroyed.”

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Both stories we reviewed avoided diesase mongering, but this story also provided some good context about the type of leukemia being studied. “CLL is the second most common form of adult leukemia. In the U.S. there are about 15,000 new cases and about 4,400 deaths each year.”

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


Both stories could have used more outside sources. In each case, only one outside source was quoted. In the WebMD case, the outside source was overly effusive. In the Reuters case, the outside source did a better job tempering some of the enthusiasm of the authors with a realistic assessment of the treatment’s prospects.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The story talked about bone marrow transplants, while the Reuters story made no mention of them. This was an important comparison for readers. “Cure is possible, but it requires a risky bone marrow transplant. About 20% of patients don’t survive this treatment — and even when they do, there’s only a 50-50 chance of a cure.”

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

The story says very high up that the findings are from a “pilot study,” and it goes on to say that “the amazing success now reported came very early in the development of this new treatment. Only a few of the thousands of CLL patients facing death will be able to enter the still-small clinical trials testing CAR T cells. ‘The distressing thing is the need will far, far, far outweigh any slots in clinical trials,’ Galipeau says.”

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


This story did a great job placing the findings into context and showing exactly why they have been found so promising by the study’s authors and other researchers. “All this has been done before. These genetically engineered cells are called chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells. They kill cancer in the test tube. But in humans, they die away before they do much damage to tumors. What’s new about the current treatment is the addition of a special signaling molecule called 4-1BB. This signal does several things: it gives CAR T cells more potent anti-tumor activity, and it somehow allows the cells to persist and multiply in patients’ bodies. Moreover, the signal does not call down the deadly all-out immune attack — the feared “cytokine storm” — that can do more harm than good.”

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


The story went well beyond any news release, but one could argue that the extensive use of patient quotes taken from a university news release is not the best journalistic practice.

Total Score: 8 of 10 Satisfactory


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