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NPR deftly summarizes results of early study using polio vaccine for brain cancer, except industry conflicts of interest

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4 Star

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Doctors Try Genetically Modified Poliovirus As Experimental Brain Cancer Treatment

Our Review Summary

This is one of two stories we reviewed about an early-phase trial of the use of a modified poliovirus for glioblastoma, a fatal brain cancer. The other review covers an NBC News story. Results of the study were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The story and the headline did an exceptional job of maintaining a cautious tone with phrasing, such as saying the approach “seems to have extended survival in a small group of patients.” It also did a good job of covering harms and describing the scope of the benefit. A couple of quibbles: The story could have mentioned the financial interests of the research team, and provided some context on how this isn’t a brand-new idea–it’s been in the spotlight of news coverage for a few years now.

 

Why This Matters

Stories about experimental treatments for fatal conditions such as glioblastoma serve the public when they exercise discretion and avoid raising false hopes.

Journalists should also strive to give some perspective on the breadth of ongoing research. Notably, this study at Duke University gained notoriety beginning in 2015 when it was the subject of a two-part story on CBS News’ 60 minutes. HealthNewsReview.org ran a critique of that story.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

There’s no mention of how much this might cost, but we’ll rate this N/A since the story makes it clear that this is early research.

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

Satisfactory

The story did a good job of reporting the scope of the observed benefit, stating that 21% of patients “experienced a prolonged survival” and then breaking down that number with more specifics. For example, it reported that after three years, 21% the treated patients survived versus 4% of a historical control group. But in a small study, why not cite the actual numbers – how many out of how many? – rather than make readers do the math in their heads.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story reported “substantial risks” with the treatment, including “dangerous swelling in the brain that can lead to seizures and other complications.” It reported that one patient had a life-threatening blood clot in the brain that required surgery.

The story did not explain how many of the patients in the trial experienced the substantial risks. This was something NBC News handled better (see the review). We can look the other way on the benefits criterion, but the story should have given some estimate of how many people experienced harm from the treatment.

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

Satisfactory

We applaud cautious framing in both the story and the headline. The lead refrained from overstating the evidence, saying the treatment “may help some patients.”

That conservative tone continued in the second paragraph, which said it “seems to have extended survival in a small group of patients.”

The story admonished that the research is “at a very early stage” and “much more follow-up” is needed, and also explained that the study’s use of a historical control group of patients “could produce misleading conclusions.”

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease-mongering here. The story said glioblastoma is the “most common and aggressive malignant brain tumor in adults.”

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

Not Satisfactory

The story did have an independent source, but did not mention that seven of the researchers on the study reported financial interests in the company that holds the license for the treatment.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story mentioned standard treatment without getting specifics, and also mentioned plans to combine this treatment with chemotherapy and other drugs. It could have also mentioned other studies that are attempting to find a cure for glioblastoma.

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

Satisfactory

The story made clear this is an experimental therapy and thus not yet widely available.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story made it sound like this was a new concept, but this research has been dancing in and out of the sensational spotlight for years.

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

Satisfactory

The story drew from a Duke news release but refrained from adopting the news release’s assertion that the poliovirus “significantly improved long-term survival for patients with recurrent glioblastoma.”

Total Score: 6 of 9 Satisfactory

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