The media shouldn’t play up treatment successes prematurely. It shouldn’t offer unsupported hope.
A terminally ill cancer patient last week asked her doctor, who I know professionally, about a therapy she read about in a May 14 Star Tribune article under a front-page headline, “Massive blast of measles vaccine wipes out cancer.”
It told of a Mayo Clinic experiment that researchers say resulted in the cancer of one patient going into remission.
But the woman’s doctor, who daily sees people who are very ill and grasping for any sliver of hope, had to tell the patient the therapy isn’t available — and won’t be for years.
Which is what so many dying patients endure entirely too often: dramatic media hype of an emerging therapy to allow sufferers to live longer. They see headlines with phrases like “wipes out cancer” as a buoy in their sea of despair. But they read on and invariably find that the “promising” therapy needs more study and scrutiny by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, followed by long and costly human trials. Hopes are cruelly crushed.
The doctor, an oncologist who also directs clinical studies on cancer drugs, said “premature publication” of this kind is “irresponsible.”
Too, Mayo’s public relations department, which “pitched” a news release announcing the experiment to the media, must appreciate the ethical boundaries of such promotion.
“The story was about an anecdote ahead of data,” said Steven Miles, a University of Minnesota professor of medicine and bioethics. In a comment appended to the story at StarTribune.com, Miles called it “shoddy journalism.”
Another expert who has guided dozens of researchers in preparing lengthy, exacting documentation required before the FDA initially considers any new therapy called the Mayo announcement and media hype a “disservice” because of the long time between anecdotal “success” and availability.
Of course, we celebrate anytime a deadly cancer retreats into remission, as happened after one patient received Mayo’s therapy. A second treated patient is said to have experienced a reduction in bone marrow cancer. Both must be very happy, and good for them.
Mayo says experimental results on two patients constitute “proof of concept.” But while results are of important interest, most researchers would say much more study is needed to validate the claim.
The story said Mayo’s therapy has worked in mice, a good first step. But so have so many emerging therapies. In the process of scientific scrutiny preceding initial FDA review, near- and longer-term testing is needed in ever-higher vertebrates like rats, rabbits and dogs.
In fact, the Mayo experiment is but one of myriad therapies seeking to “target” cancers with potentially effective treatments given in small enough doses to spare patients the debilitating effects of chemotherapy.
But why single out the Mayo experiment for such high-profile notice? Why, as Miles asks, didn’t the story provide much more data on how the therapy was administered or about a follow-up procedure?
Why didn’t the story state, as did Mayo’s news release, that Mayo and researchers involved have a financial stake in the therapy?
Why the headline “wipes out cancer” over a story saying the therapy is directed at myeloma and pancreatic cancers, which are just two of 200 or more known cancers?
The Star Tribune is a reputable newspaper. One may hope that future reports of emerging cancer therapies may be confined to actual scientific accomplishment, following human trials to validate any claim. Too, media reports should be tempered to accord respect for those who suffer and provide fuller context of the range of science being applied in ways to address their awful despair.
Ron Way, a former journalist and clinical studies manager for a medical device firm, represents investors on boards of five medical start-ups, three of which are developing therapies that target cancer types. Two companies have drugs in FDA-approved clinical trials.
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