Study Finds Media Inflates Potential of Cancer Drugs

Terms like revolutionary or miracle cause confusion for readers.

Terms like revolutionary or miracle cause confusion for readers.

Prior to the approval of cancer treatments, use in the media of terms like “revolutionary,” “groundbreaking,” and “miracle,” can frequently inflate the preliminary results of trials evaluating these drugs, a recent study finds.

Published in JAMA Oncology, the study suggests that these terms are used in the media even when there are no data to support a benefit to overall survival.

Researchers noted that news articles using inappropriate terminology that lacks clinical support or without proper medical context leads to misunderstandings for readers, some of whom are desperate for hope in the drug pipeline.

Investigators used the term “cancer drug” in a Google news search combined with 10 superlatives:

  • breakthrough
  • game changer
  • miracle
  • cure
  • home run
  • revolutionary
  • transformative
  • life saver
  • groundbreaking
  • marvel

Between the dates of June 21 and June 25, 2015, researchers found 94 articles by 66 different news outlets that included 97 mentions of these superlatives for 36 specific drugs. However, just half of the drugs in these articles had been approved by the FDA for at least one indication.

The study found targeted therapies to be the most common drugs where these superlatives were used, comprising 17 of the 36 drugs found by researchers.

The results further showed these superlatives were used in different articles for 9 cytotoxic drugs, 5 immunotherapy checkpoint inhibitors, 3 cancer vaccines, 1 radiotherapy, and 1 gene therapy.

These terms were most frequently utilized in reference to targeted therapies and immunologic checkpoint inhibitors. Furthermore, there was a complete absence of clinical data to support the use of these superlatives for 5 of the 36 drugs found in the study.

Out of the 97 terms referenced in these articles, 55% were used by journalists; 27% were used by physicians; 9% were used by industry experts; 8% were used by patients; and there was 1 use by a member of Congress.

Furthermore, in 55% of these instances, the article author used the superlative without any other attribution.

"A range of speakers used superlatives but the majority were journalists, 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.”