As this year’s annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology came to its end, 10 superlative terms were used by a pair of researchers in reference to Cancer drugs in a Google search over the last five days of June this year. 94 news stories from 66 organizations had been published from June 21 to June 25 after the cancer conference which had made 97 superlative references to 36 specific drugs.
“The use of superlatives in Cancer research” is the name of an article in the Journal JAMA Oncology, which has been co-authored by Vinay Prasad, MD, MPH student and medical student, Matthew. V. Abola.
Breakthrough, game changer, miracle, cure, home run, revolutionary, transformative, life saver , groundbreaking, marvel were the ten terms. The study was conducted by Prasad and Abola due to their great concern of media hype leading to misunderstandings amongst the public, including cancer patients. “We used news.google.com, which searches many news outlets. We wanted a broad sampling of what was out there,” Dr Prasad told Medscape Medical News.
The most hyped drug was a combination of two immunotherapy checkpoint inhibitors ipilimumab (Yervoy, Bristol-Myers Squibb) and nivolumab (Opdivo, Bristol-Myers Squibb). This had almost about 21% with twenty mentions of the ninety seven superlatives. The drug had been accurately explained as a breakthrough seven times, a miracle five times, a game changer five times, revolutionary two times, and groundbreaking once.
The second most promoted drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda, Merck) another immunotherapy checkpoint inhibitor approved for the treatment of melanoma and lung cancer and is being tested for head and neck cancer, colorectal cancer, and other malignancies had about twelve mentions. The third drug that was popular during searches is palbociclib (Ibrance, Pfizer), which was approved this year for metastatic breast cancer and had seven mentions. Moreover, other drugs in the top 10, described with at least one of the designated superlatives, are the targeted therapies.
However, it is important to note that half of these drugs have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. For five of thirty six (14%) drugs, superlatives were used in the absence of clinical data. The findings of Prasad and Abola also suggest, that the media misuses such terms very frequently while reporting about new cancer drugs even when they are not approved.
Most new cancer drugs extend survival by only a few months, said Prasad. He further added that while hyping, new cancer drugs “feeds into this mentality the newest thing has got to be the best thing.” While newer often means better when it comes to cellphones or computers, it is not necessarily the case with cancer drugs. Prasad said the hard reality of cancer is that, for many tumors, “our treatments are just not that great yet. It’s always inappropriate to say that something is a ‘breakthrough’ or ‘game changer’ based on work in animals,” Prasad said. “It would be like doing a news story about someone who’s bought a lottery ticket, talking about how much money he plans to win.”