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Newsweek story on Zika vaccine to zap brain cancer is fascinating–but needed more caution about mouse research

Rating

4 Star

Categories

GLIOBLASTOMA: ZIKA VIRUS COULD DESTROY BRAIN CANCER THAT KILLED JOHN MCCAIN

Our Review Summary

This story reports results from a study in which researchers deployed a Zika virus vaccine to target and kill human glioblastoma brain cancer stem cells, which had been transplanted into mice. Glioblastoma is the most common and malignant form of primary brain tumor, and has most recently been in the news as the disease that killed Senator John McCain. It is incurable despite aggressive treatment with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Median survival time is less than 2 years.

The story does express some limitations of the study findings, which we appreciate. But given how preliminary this evidence was, we think there was room for improvement–especially in the headline (no mention of mice) and when countering some speculation about how the virus might “hunt” down cancer in people.

 

Why This Matters

Any new ideas about cancer treatment are exciting. The idea of using the “bad side” of viruses for good purposes is intriguing. However, as the story states, it’s not yet known if this virus is safe for use in humans, and finding that out is likely to take several more years of research. The story has relevance because the nation has recently been in mourning after the death of Senator McCain. It’s also interesting because the threat of Zika infection has been a real concern in certain parts of the U.S., so its potential use as a treatment of brain cancer feels like a fascinating paradox.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

This is a report of the results of a clinical trial in mice. It’s too early to estimate costs for human treatment. However, some discussion of the steep, sometimes bankrupting, costs of cancer treatment is always a good idea.

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

Satisfactory

We learn from this story that mice with the attenuated Zika virus lived 50 days, in comparison to mice in the control group that lived 30 days. We aren’t given specific numbers on how much tumor development was delayed. We’ll award a satisfactory grade since the story did at least quantify the overall survival difference between the two groups (something rarely reported on in coverage of rodent studies). However, given that this was a study in mice, we were looking for strong cautions that we simply have no evidence if this will work in humans, which is true of all animal studies on potential human treatments. That’s a deficit we’ll address below under the Evidence criterion.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story reports that the Zika virus had no adverse health effects in mice, but that it is possible it might destroy healthy neural tissue in humans. Again, the story needed to caution that we have no idea how this might help–or hurt–humans.

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

Not Satisfactory

Given the uncertainty around animal studies ever leading to an effective treatment, we question the appropriateness of running a story in a major newsweekly in the first place. But if journalists decide that this type of research is worthy of coverage, we think they should do more to clarify in some detail how far away we are from a potential treatment for humans. That point was mentioned in the story but didn’t come across strongly enough here, especially since one of the researchers speculated that “Before undergoing surgery, cancer patients could be given the Zika vaccine to “let the viruses hunt down the GSCs [glioblastoma stem cells] and eliminate them.” It would have been a good idea to point out we don’t know if this “hunting” will work similarly in people. Most importantly, based on this type of evidence, we are far from knowing if this will increase the quality of life and overall survival time for people with brain cancer.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering was noted in the story.

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

Satisfactory

The story does include an independent source though we wish the source had been tapped more to explain the very limited human implications of the research.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

Normal cancer treatments such as radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy are mentioned, and described as not successful in the long run against human glioblastoma brain cancer.

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

Satisfactory

It’s clear this treatment isn’t available for use in humans.

The story could have put the findings into clearer perspective if it noted that availability for human is at best 5 to 7 years in the future–and actually may never come to pass.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

We do not learn from this story that multiple versions of oncolytic viruses have been explored for virotherapy against human Glioblastoma, with promising results. Thus, although the use of Zika virus may be new, research into using viruses to treat this cancer is well under way.

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

Satisfactory

The story cites an expert not affiliated with the research project, and gives a full background regarding the Zika virus and Senator John McCain. It does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 6 of 9 Satisfactory

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