The last week or so has seen some rather garish headlines in the news about cancer treatments currently undergoing testing in early clinical trials.
First up was the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, normally a staid institution renowned for good solid research, but the PR headline screamed pure sensationalism in their press release:
Mayo Researchers: Dramatic Outcomes in Prostate Cancer Study
While we all like to be positive and feel a sense of hope in our lives, what the press releases failed to mention was fair balance, namely that some patients with prostate cancer do actually see occasional stunning results with androgen ablation alone, so highlighting the 'dramatic' results of two patients on androgen therapy plus ipilimumab doesn't really tell us if the results seen were due to the androgen therapy or the ipilimumab. Making waves about two patients does sadly not a cure make; raising false hopes in patients sick with cancer is a little tawdry at best.
The second headline that caught my eye was an email alert from the FT of all places. In it, they were reporting about a trial from another venerable institution, the Royal Marsden in London:
New cancer treatment shows ‘great promise’
This time, the article was about AstraZeneca's PARP inhibitor, olaparib, for BRCA1 and 2 breast cancers, although the coverage did not mention that it was the drugs first clinical trial, but the hype really jars a little. I reported on this data from ASCO in an earlier blog post.
What was interesting that the FT quoted Dr Johann De Bono as saying:
tumours. It is giving patients who
have already tried many conventional treatments long periods of
remission, free from the symptoms of cancer or major side-effects.”
Then I remembered he was the same doctor who constantly talked up the Cougar abiraterone trial results in prostate cancer, although it should be noted that abiraterone is part of the same family as ketoconazole, a generic anti-fungal treatment sometimes used to treat hormone sensitive prostate cancer after standard androgen therapy such as Casodex or Lupron and estrogen. The goal of treatment is to keep men who are hormone sensitive on such therapies for as long as possible, since this keeps the disease (and PSA levels) in check. Once they become refractory to treatment, the tumor will start proliferating and metastasize, so having new therapies added to the list to extend and prolong lives with minimal side effects is definitely a positive thing, providing the results pan out that way.
It should be noted that breast cancer is also a disease where patients often undergo multiple lines of therapy and the data with olaparib has not yet been published in full, although a sample of the initial early results was covered in a poster at the recent ASCO meeting. The press release was probably one of the poorest I have seen in a long while – short on the trial details and long on wild hype.
Perhaps sometimes we forget that cancer Institutions are a business in their own right. What these centers are doing is marketing themselves and trying to attract more patients to their clinical trials rather than see community oncologists for standard treatment in the local area. It's an ongoing battle between the two all over America, and while Europe has mainly Academic cancer centres, they all still compete with each other for patients and the flow of money, either from treatments, trials or for research dollars.
The prize for the worse headline on this topic must surely go to Sky News, though, which is rapidly becoming the tabloid of British Television:
New Drug Is 'Holy Grail' In Cancer Fight
This headline struck my Mother so forcefully that she made a rare call to me this morning from 5,000 miles away to ask whether venerable cancer hospitals were becoming the Heroin dealers of medicine. Ouch.
Sensationalism has no place in research and development; patients and
their families deserve better than false hope being peddled so
brazenly; the Mayo Clinic and Royal Marsden should know better than
that. How could they have done better while mataining their
How about something positive, but muted, such as:
"Early but promising results seen in xxxxx cancer – more trials needed to confirm findings"
relevant information about the patients, inclusion and exclusion
criteria and the trial design would have gone a long way to putting the
information in context. Still, what do I know? I'm much too old
school for inappropriate, tacky and racy tag lines and sound bites in
the news media.
What do you think?