Is it true that an experimental treatment to lower LDL cholesterol “may help” patients who can’t tolerate standard statin treatment? That’s what this story reports. But the fact is that no one knows, because this trial and others other similar tests have measured only how the drug affects blood test results in the short term, not whether there are any real health benefits in the long run. Also, readers also aren’t told that Amgen funded and led the trial and the researchers receive money from Amgen for consulting and other services.
People who have had a heart attack or other cardiovascular disease may reduce their future risks by taking a statin drug. However, some treatments that lower LDL cholesterol have failed to demonstrate real health benefits. News reports about experimental cholesterol treatments should always point out the distinction between lab test results and meaningful health outcomes.
Although this drug is still experimental, the story should have told readers that some analysts predict that this sort of drug, known as a biologic, will cost at least $10,000 a year, compared to less $200 a year for a generic statin. Many observers predict that the extremely high cost of this new type of cholesterol-lowering treatment is likely to mean it would be used only when statins don’t do the job, which means this line of research may never be relevant to most people.
This story tosses around the word “benefit” in a way that would make most readers believe that anything that lowers LDL “bad” cholesterol always reduces the risk of future heart-related problems. However, tests of some unrelated drugs (e.g., clofibrate) showed that despite lowering LDL, the risk of heart problems was not reduced. It may turn out that this drug reduces future health risks for certain patients, but that is not what this trial tested. This story perpetuates common confusion between a mere lab test number and meaningful health outcomes.
We will score this story as meeting the minimum requirement of this criterion because the story did briefly note that “the reduction in the number of myalgias (muscle pains) for patients compared to the number of myalgias experienced by people taking statins,” which would imply to alert readers that the number wasn’t zero. However, the point of the trial was to find a way around side effects that statins cause some patients, so it is irksome that the story fails to point out that a trial this small probably wouldn’t have detected the statin-caused problem, and that much larger trials will be needed to rule out similarly uncommon problems with this new drug.
As noted above, this story fails to distinguish between the LDL cholesterol numbers… that the trial measured… with the real heart health risks that people actually care about, but which this trial was not designed to measure.
The story does highlight the fact that this trial included only people who have problems when they take statin drugs. Most readers should get the point that the point of the trial was to address those specific statin side effect problems, not the more general questions about heart disease risk that matter to the average patient.
While this story includes quotes from experts not involved with the trial (unlike a Reuters story we also reviewed about a different trial of the same drug), it fails to tell readers that:
– the trial was funded by Amgen
– Amgen led the design and conduct of the study
– key researchers receive payments from Amgen, not only for research, but also to serve on boards and conduct outreach for the company.
All of this conflict of interest information is clearly listed at the end of the journal article that reports the trial results. It should have been included in the story.
The story does make clear that this drug is intended to offer an alternative to patients who have problems with standard statin drug treatment. It also reports that reductions in LDL cholesterol levels were comparable to those seen with statin treatment. However, as noted above, the story fails to point out that while statin treatment has been shown to reduce health risks for patients with heart disease neither this trial nor any others have yet shown meaningful health benefits for these patients.
The story reports that the drug is experimental.
The story reports that this drug might offer a new way to lower cholesterol in patients who can’t tolerate statin drugs.
The story does not appear to rely largely on a news release.