That breakthrough game-changing miracle cancer drug is likely nothing of the sort

I couldn’t love this study more. From JAMA Oncology, “The Use of Superlatives in Cancer Research

The language used in oncology practice and research may elicit important connotations.1 Whereas most new cancer drugs afford modest benefits, approved drugs or those in development may be heralded as “game changers” or “breakthroughs” in the lay press. These news articles may be important sources of information to patients, the public, and investors—with a broader reach than medical journal articles. However, omission of medical context or use of inflated descriptors may lead to misunderstandings among readers.

We sought to investigate the use of modest and superlative descriptors in contemporary news articles regarding cancer drugs. We sought to determine who uses this inflated language and what classes of drugs were most heralded.

The researchers looked for the following terms in Google News over five days in June, used when talking about cancer drugs:

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

Then a researcher pulled the articles and collected the drug, its mechanism of action, and the class of medication. They also checked to see if the drug had been approved by the FDA, whether the study being written about was from a human trial , or cell/mouse data, and who was being quoted. A different researcher added in the drug’s mechanism of action and coded their class.

They found 94 news articles from 66 distinct news outlets over the five days. These pieces used the superlative words 97 times when talking about 36 specific drugs. Among those 97 superlatives, 40% referred to a targeted therapy, 38% to an immunologic checkpoint inhibitor, 10% to a cytotoxic drug, 5% to a vaccine, 2% to a radiotherapy, and 1% to gene therapy.

Half, yes half, of the miraculous drugs described hadn’t yet received FDA approval for any indications at all. For 14% of the drugs, the miraculous behavior or results didn’t even come from trials in humans.

Journalists (the media) were to blame 555 of the time. But 27% of the time it was physicians using the words, 9% industry experts, 8% patients, and 1% an elected official.

I complain all the time that we oversell results when talking about science. It’s nice to have some data.


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