The piece felt top-heavy with words of “progress…more effective…complete remission (in one patient)…hopes,” etc.
Half-way through came this line: “Several independent researchers said the study results were promising. But they also noted that the trial involved only 11 patients and said the therapy was less effective than in other published trials.”
But the only detailed caveat came at the very end – from Dr. Steven Rosenberg of the National Cancer Institute. What is so ironic is that while we were reading the piece, but before we got to Rosenberg’s quote, we actually reflected on the exuberant early news coverage of Rosenberg’s interleukin-2 research back in the 1980s – and how similar this felt. Now, about this new work, Rosenberg is quoted as saying “Cloned cells don’t work. These results are inferior.” It would have been easy to pull out news coverage of the IL-2 work (such as the Newsweek cover story in 1985) and help readers think about similarities.
So, while we applaud the overall work of this story, we wished for a bit more historical perspective. Journalists and the public should remember Santayana’s quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We were urged to review this by breast cancer advocate Jody Schoger, who wrote on Facebook, “This seems like announcing a new chemo regimen that extends survival by one or two months…. I do appreciate that hope and optimism – I always prefer that it’s anchored with the reality of time; and how long it takes to go from these new realizations to making significant progress against melanoma.” Schoger’s note elicited this response from Sally Church, PhD (a biochemist interested in cancer biology): “Ugh yet more hype about immunotherapy with a small number of patients… don’t get me started!”
An early experiment of immunotherapy against melanoma may be too early to allow for a cost estimate.
We’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt for reporting:
“In six of the 11 patients in the trial, the melanoma stopped progressing for 12 to 19 weeks. Another patient was declared in remission because his cancer ceased to spread and, after several months, disappeared altogether. Three years later, researchers continue to detect the presence of the cloned cells they infused into the patient”
The story stated:
“Currently, the T cells have limited staying power and often die off before their work is done. Doctors give them a boost by administering a growth factor called interleukin-2. But at high doses, it can cause dangerously low blood pressure, breathing problems, kidney failure and heart arrhythmias.
Yee’s group showed that by choosing T cells more selectively, patients can get by with much lower doses of interleukin-2, making the treatment less toxic.”
But we’re not told what side effects were observed in the 11 patients in the study. In reality the study originally involved a high dose (3 subjects) and low dose (8 subjects) IL-2 arm. The high dose arm was closed by the Data and Safety Monitoring Board prematurely due to unacceptable toxicity.
The early, small, preliminary nature of the study was clear from the story. Steven Rosenberg’s comments at the end also gave perspective.
No disease mongering at play here.
Several independent sources were quoted.
Brief reference was made to one patient having had 6 years of chemotherapy “only to have his melanoma return.” And Rosenberg’s comments at the end note a competing immunotherapy approach. But the story didn’t give readers a clear context of melanoma treatments, or of why and for whom immunotherapy would be tried, etc.
We think it’s clear from the story that this is only an experimental approach right now.
The relative novelty of this approach for melanoma was evident in the story.
It’s clear that the story did not rely solely on a news release.