Cancer Drug Research Overhyped By Media, Giving False Hope to Patients, Study Reveals

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Marji_311015According to a new study recently published online in JAMA Oncology, news articles that promise “breakthrough, game-changing” new cancer drugs could be giving false hope to desperate patients.

Researchers found that five days worth of news last June contained 94 articles that praised 36 different cancer drugs. Unfortunately, according to study results, half of the drugs were not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and 14% were never tested on humans.

Dr. Vinay Prasad, the study’s co-author, suggests that people who follow cancer news may be frustrated as it is unclear what drugs are truly promising.

We found that the use of superlatives or grandiose descriptors of drugs happens whether drugs are approved or not, whether they are tested in people or not, or whether they improve survival or not,” Prasad said.

Dr. Lidia Schapira, an oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston believes that cancer patients are most harmed by drug hype. Schapira describes an unpleasant conversation she had with a distraught patient suffering from advanced cancer: “She was telling me she was surrounded by all of the media reporting all these incredible miracles and successes, and she felt she wasn’t benefitting directly from this,” Schapira said. “It took a long conversation for her to appreciate that what she was referring to was a lot of hype.”

For their study, Prasad and his colleagues scanned Google News for 10 specific superlatives used with the term “cancer drug.” The search included words such as “game changer,” “cure,” “transformative,” “revolutionary,” “breakthrough,” “groundbreaking,” “marvel,” “life,” and “saver.”

Researchers discovered that 18 of the 36 drugs that were described were not approved by the FDA, while five of the 36 hadn’t been tested on humans. Furthermore, each story was based on laboratory research involving cell cultures or mice. Targeted therapy drugs that were designed to identify and attack cancer cells received the most hype, with 47% of the articles focusing on this type of medication, according to study results. More than 50% of the time, the article writers included the superlative on their own, without attributing it to a source. Physicians were sourced for the hype 27% of the time, industry experts nine percent, and patients eight percent.

Journalists need to continue to cover advances in science, experts say, but should avoid using overblown rhetoric and give important context about each study’s potential flaws and design.

As Schapira concludes, “I believe in sharing results and research with the public. If there are new findings, it’s important to relay that to the public, but do it responsibly.”

Source for Today’s Article:
Thompson, D., “Media Often Overplays Cancer Drug Research, Study Finds,”; October 29, 2015;