Media Hype: Not Every New Cancer Drug Is Awesome

By Gil Ross — Nov 02, 2015
A review of 100 news media articles on new cancer drugs found that about one-half described the subject drug in a superlative tone that was generally uncalled for and likely to generate false hope.

MiracleDrug!A research letter in the latest JAMA Oncology states what you probably already knew - that media announcements of new cancer therapies are more hype than substance and lead to overly-high expectations among desperate patients and their families.

Vinay Prasad, MD, MPH, of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, and Matthew V. Abola, a medical student at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveand, analyzed one-hundred news articles. The stories described 36 cancer drugs, and included words such as "breakthrough" and "miracle," even though 50% of the time those drugs weren't even FDA approved, and 14% of the time they hadn't been tested in humans yet.

The use of these "'inflated descriptors" often reflected the current "state-of-the-art," new areas of cancer research and the commonly-used superlatives included:"breakthrough," "game changer," "miracle," "cure," "home run," "revolutionary," "transformative," "life saver," "groundbreaking," and "marvel." By class, the most popular drugs mentioned were in targeted therapy (47 percent), then cytotoxic drugs (25 percent), and immunotherapy checkpoint inhibitors (14 percent), and cancer vaccines (8 percent).

According to the authors, "Superlatives are used for all types of medications, including those, such as therapeutic cancer vaccines, which historically have low response rates and drugs that have not yet shown overall survival benefits (eg, palbociclib). Of concern, 14% of drugs were praised without any human data."

We've grown immune to hype about celebrity scandals and political bombast but we have not, as a society, become inured to the clarion call of "miracle" and "breakthrough" when it comes to lifesaving (maybe) new drugs.

Society still has a great deal of faith in science and medicine, as we should. But we need to keep in mind these stories are still written by journalists, and signed off on by editors who need to keep eyeballs glues to paper, televisions and tablet screens. It isn't always the fault of journalists, though, sometimes it is the researchers themselves. In everything from "bees are addicted to neonic pesticides" claims to "implications for life on other planets" from NASA, scholars and their institutions are likewise to blame.

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