The news stories, one after another, heaped grandiose descriptions on cancer drugs that had not been approved, had shown little ability to extend the lives of patients or otherwise remained unproven.
"Breakthrough," the articles said about treatments aimed at harnessing the body's immune system to fight cancer. "Revolutionary," they said about drugs targeted toward certain genetic mutations. The adjectives went on and on: Groundbreaking. Home run. Transformative. Life saver. Marvel. Cure.
Undoubtedly, we are living through an exciting time in cancer research. New immune therapy treatments approved in recent years have demonstrated dramatic results in some patients, extending their lives by months or years. Targeted drugs continue to show promise in treating specific cancers with specific genetic profiles. There are breakthroughs happening, and some sure look transformative.
And yet, when researchers this summer searched the Web for coverage of the new drugs in the media, they came away concerned that the routine use of superlatives describing the treatments might offer a misleading and overly optimistic view compared to reality. After all, even the best treatments work for only a fraction of patients.
"Some of the drugs are actually very excellent drugs. It’s reasonable to feel excited about them … I'm excited about some of those drugs, too," said Vinay Prasad, an assistant professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Sciences University and a co-author of the study, which appeared Thursday in the journal JAMA Oncology. "But you want to balance that against reasonable expectations. You want hope, but realistic hope. That’s what we all strive for."
The experiment the group ran was simple. It involved running a Google news search for stories that appeared between June 21 and 25. They searched the phrase "cancer drug," along with nearly a dozen superlatives, such as "revolutionary" and "miracle."
The inquiry turned up 94 articles from 66 separate news outlets, referencing 36 different drugs. Despite the glowing adjectives, half the treatments had not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration; a handful of them had not yet even been tested in humans, meaning far more research was needed to know if they might succeed.
"These news articles may be important sources of information to patients, the public, and investors -- with a broader reach than medical journal articles," the scientists wrote. "However, omission of medical context or use of inflated descriptors may lead to misunderstandings among readers."
Who was responsible for the potentially premature praise?
"The majority were journalists (55%), who may not have the expertise to identify the most promising medical therapies, or what magnitude of benefit warrants a superlative," the authors wrote. But journalists weren't the only ones hyping the new treatments. Doctors, pharmaceutical industry experts, patients and even one member of Congress were quoted using one of the superlatives.
The researchers noted that one limitation of their study was the brief window of time they examined, which also came not long after the annual conference of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, an event that typically generates a wave of coverage about promising new cancer therapies. Also, it's worth noting that the FDA itself labels some new therapies as "breakthrough" candidates, an official designation that can lead to a speedier review process, and probably one reason that word appears so often in the coverage.
Still, the point of Thursday's study remains. "Hot fields" of cancer research, the authors wrote, often garner the most -- and the most glowing -- media coverage. That optimism can be useful, but so can a healthy dose of caution.
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