So many cancer “breakthroughs”

Blood cancers

3 Nov 2015

The use of superlatives to describe cancer drugs in news articles as “breakthrough,” “revolutionary,” “miracle” is common even when drugs have not shown survival benefits or been approved, a study shows. 

Haematologist-oncologist Dr Vinay Prasad from the Oregon Health & Science University, Portland, and colleagues googled the use of 10 superlatives – breakthrough, game changer, miracle, cure, home run, revolutionary, transformative, life saver, groundbreaking and marvel – within news articles on cancer drugs. 

They found 94 articles from 66 news outlets with 97 superlatives used to refer to 36 specific drugs.

Half of the drugs described had not yet received approval from the US FDA for at least one indication.

The most common class of drugs referenced was targeted therapy (17 of 36), nine cytotoxic drugs, five immunotherapy checkpoint inhibitors, three cancer vaccines, one radiotherapy and one gene therapy.

Superlatives were used most often to refer to targeted therapy and an immunologic checkpoint inhibitor. For 5 of the 36 drugs (14 percent), superlatives were used in the absence of clinical data, the researchers reported in their article published in JAMA Oncology..

Most of the 97 superlatives were used by journalists (55 percent); physicians (27 percent); industry experts (9 percent); patients (8 percent) and one member of Congress (1 percent).

In 55 percent of the cases, the superlative was used by the author of the article without any other attribution.

“A range of speakers used superlatives but the majority were journalists (55 percent), who may not have the expertise to identify the most promising medical therapies, or what magnitude of benefit warrants a superlative,” the authors wrote.

The use of superlatives is common in cancer research news articles. Some of this use may be questioned,” they added.

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