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Heavy on anecdote and light on evidence: NBC News’s story on experimental migraine drug

Rating

3 Star

Categories

Tags

New Drugs May Stop Migraines Before They Start

Our Review Summary

This NBC News story looks at a class of migraine drugs under development, which block a molecule known as calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), and features one patient who is taking one of these drugs as part of a clinical trial. Although the story does a nice job defining chronic migraine and describing the epidemiology of the problem, the featured patient story is extreme.

These drugs are not yet FDA approved, but this story makes the assumption that they are effective without explaining why. Much remains to be seen about this new drug class, including the side effects and harms–another area that story skimped on.

 

Why This Matters

Migraine is a common problem and some people who suffer are unable to get relief from typical prescription medications. New drug classes are needed, particularly if they can prevent migraine from occurring

However, just because a drug is undergoing clinical trials doesn’t mean it will be FDA approved, and even if it’s approved, there is no guarantee it’s any safer or more effective than current options. That kind of context was missing from this non-skeptical story.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The story tells us the drug, if approved, may cost $10,000 a year. This is very useful context.

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

Not Satisfactory

We’re told only that “preliminary studies sponsored by one drug maker shows patients had three to four fewer migraine days each month.” Three to four fewer migraine days each month–what was the starting point?

Another concern we had was this claim: “If we can block CGRP [a molecule], then we can abort a migraine attack,” says Kudrow. Do scientists really know that blocking this molecule is all it takes to stop migraines in all people who get them? Or does this molecule-blocking action only work for some people, and if so, for whom?

Also, it sounds like results from several clinical trials are due out later this year–why not wait to write the story then, when there’s more evidence to assess?

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

Not Satisfactory

The story includes no discussion of the drawbacks of this new experimental class of drugs.

At the very least, we know that the need to take injections will be a turn off for some sufferers.

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

Not Satisfactory

There’s not enough information to assess the quality of the evidence. It sounds like there are multiple ongoing trials involving this new drug class. But, are these placebo-controlled trials? How many patients are enrolled and what was measured besides migraine days? The clinical trial patient who is interviewed in the story sounds pretty certain that she’s taking the drug, which indicates it’s an open-label trial. That sort of trial is highly susceptible to bias, and readers need to know that.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story skirts the line here. The dramatic patient anecdote that leads the piece is not a typical presentation for a chronic migraine sufferer.

However, the story redeems itself with a good description of the condition and its prevalence:

…more than 35 million Americans suffer from migraine attacks. About 4 million sufferers have chronic migraine, with headaches for 10 to 14 days a month. Most migraines are benign, although they can be disabling.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story had no independent sources. Including some would have likely strengthened the story.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story mentions some alternatives, but only to discuss how they don’t work and/or carry side effects. This is a particularly important shortcoming. There are several medications that can be used effectively for patients with chronic migraine to prevent their occurrence, including beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, and some medications used in seizure disorder.  Some patients are also able to prevent migraine by careful lifestyle changes, like avoiding changes in caffeine consumption, alcohol (particularly wines), foods, and irregular sleeping habits.

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

Satisfactory

The story establishes availability:

Results from several pharmaceutical trials are expected either later this year or in early 2018. If approved by the FDA, the drug could be available in 2018.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story explains that this would be a new class of approved drugs that target a specific molecule thought to be involved in migraines.

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

Not Applicable

We could not locate a news release related to this topic, so we don’t know to what extent the story may or may not have relied on a news release. Had the story included independent sources, we could have been confident that the story contained original reporting. We’ll rate this N/A.

Total Score: 4 of 9 Satisfactory

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