This AP news story discusses immune therapy (or immunotherapy) and the various tests that cancer specialists are using to identify good and bad candidates for this kind of treatment. We appreciated the discussion around the evolving understanding of how the immune system can be manipulated by these drugs to attack cancer.
We also were pleased to see important caveats about the limited scope of benefits and harms high up in the story. However, readers may ignore those facts and instead only remember the two very positive patient anecdotes, which, while inspiring, don’t reflect the reality of how many people benefit.
As noted in the story, immune therapy has a low success rate if not targeted at the right patients, and even then benefits can be short-lived. This is vital context for readers that we don’t often see in stories about immunotherapy.
Apart from describing the treatment as “expensive,” readers aren’t given any additional information about the absolute cost of these checkpoint drugs. They are some of the most costly drugs in existence, and many patients struggle to afford them even when covered by insurance, so we think this should have been more spelled out.
We’re glad the story made it clear that these drugs only benefit a small percentage of patients, and for some, it actually worsens their disease. This is crucial context.
But when it comes to how much it benefits patients, the story doesn’t delve deeply enough. It mostly focuses on how individual patients responded to treatment. What does the evidence show, as measured by relevant clinical trials? It’s especially important to note if any trials have yet shown that these drugs extend overall survival and/or improve quality of life compared to standard treatments.
One quote on benefits we found confusing:
“Three-quarters of patients who are helped by checkpoint drugs have long-lasting benefits, as Lyon did, said Dr. Steven O’Day, an immunotherapy expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California”.
We’re not sure what he means by “long lasting” — there has been little long-term follow-up of these drug’s performance for most cancers, other than melanoma.
While we think the story could have provided more specific details on side effects of these drugs, readers will come away knowing that this drug carries risks.
This story mostly reports on single cases, which only provides readers with anecdotal evidence at best for the effectiveness of these drugs. For the few research studies that were referenced, there is no description of study design or procedures which makes it difficult for readers to determine the strength of the study and any findings reported.
There was no disease mongering found in this story.
This story includes perspectives from multiple cancer specialists across the country. It also discloses a notable conflict of interest of Dr. Kurzock, who consulted for gene-medicine makers, and co-founded a company that uses a software program to determine optimal treatment for cancer patients based on their genes.
This was largely a story looking at how researchers are trying to refine immunotherapy so that it’s more effective and less harmful. We’ll consider this N/A for this reason.
There are several references to patients who have undergone this treatment throughout the story, which implies its commercial availability.
The novelty of this treatment lies in determining potentially eligible candidates for immune therapy, which this story does note.
From the numerous expert sources consulted, it’s apparent that the writer went beyond the news release to help fill in some of the gaps, and provide additional context on this treatment for readers.