The media may inadvertently be the biggest culprit in exaggerating the potential benefit of new cancer drugs, and that could lead to misunderstandings among patients and the public, according to a new JAMA Oncology report.
“Whereas most new cancer drugs afford modest benefits, approved drugs or those in development may be heralded as 'game changers' or 'breakthroughs' in the lay press,” and without appropriate medical context, such language can be misunderstood by readers, writes researcher Dr. Vinay Prasad in “The use of superlatives in cancer research,” published Thursday in JAMA Oncology.
Prasad and his colleagues sought to determine how often media coverage of new drugs included 10 superlative terms: “miracle,” “transformative,” “cure,” “breakthrough,” “game changer,” “revolutionary,” “life-saver, “groundbreaking,” “home run” and “marvel.” They also examined what types of drugs received such descriptors the most, and to whom the mentions could be attributed.
They found that reports of new cancer drugs were frequently accompanied by superlatives. In a review of articles about 36 drugs, retrieved via Internet search over four days in June, the researchers found 94 articles containing 97 superlative mentions of the drugs. Many of the articles touted the drugs' benefits even in cases where the drugs had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration or had no human trial data, much less proven efficacy or survival benefits. Three articles containing superlative descriptors didn't even mention the name of the drug in question.
When the researchers examined who made the superlative comments about the drugs, they found that while physicians (27%), patients (8%) and industry experts (9%) made several of the comments, 55% had no attribution—in other words, the superlative assertions were being made by the journalists themselves.
That's concerning because the public may see news articles as credible information sources, but the study results suggest that many of the journalists covering the drugs didn't fully understand their subject and “may not have the expertise to identify the most promising medical therapies, or what magnitude of benefit warrants a superlative,” the researchers wrote.
Accuracy in coverage is imperative to best serve the interests of the public, but becomes even more urgent in light of industry lobbying efforts and the 21st Century Cures Act, a legislative push to speed new drugs and devices to market.
Drugs touted based on limited clinical data today may not live up to early hype or may in the long term have unanticipated adverse effects. A May Guardian article on an Amgen melanoma drug, talimogene laherparepvec, asserted "the therapy has the potential to overcome cancer even when the disease has spread to organs throughout the body, offering hope in future to patients who have been faced with the bleakest prognosis." The drug, a first-of-its kind "virotherapy" that uses an engineered strain of live herpes virus to target tumors that could not be completely surgically removed, was then in Stage 3 clinical trials. It received FDA approval this week, after what Bloomberg has called "lackluster clinical trials" that missed overall survival goals in the final stage. The FDA was careful to note the drug has not been shown to improve survival and does not treat tumors that have metastasized beyond the skin and lymph nodes.
Just last week the FDA warned that AbbVie hepatis C treatments Viekira Pak and Technivie, on the market less than a year, can cause life-threatening liver damage in patients in advanced stages of the disease.