News hype clouds public understanding of cancer research

Breakthrough. Game changer. Revolutionary. Transformative. Life saver.

A new analysis of media coverage found that half of new cancer drugs described with such superlatives had not received Food and Drug Administration approval for any indication. Worse, 14 percent of the hyped treatments had not been tested in human subjects.

“While some cancer drugs in development are good and important, the majority are not game changers, and that means we as researchers have to do a better job at communicating the right amount of promise a therapy has,” said senior author Vinay Prasad, M.D., M.P.H., a hematologist-oncologist with the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute and assistant professor of medicine in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Prasad and co-author Matthew Abola, a first-year medical student at Case Western University School of Medicine, performed a Google news search for 10 superlative terms used with “cancer drug” between June 21, 2015, and June 25, 2015 (following the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, which receives heavy news coverage). Journalists were responsible for 55 percent of the superlatives, but physicians were the ones using them in 27 percent of instances.

The hype can make oncologists feel like dream-dashers, Prasad said in a well reported story by NPR:

Prasad says about once a month a patient walks in with a question about a so-called breakthrough or revolutionary drug they read about on the web. They ask, “‘Is it going to help me?‘” he says. “And then I have to explain.”

“You don’t want to say no, forget about it,” says Prasad. “We want as oncologists to foster something called reasonable optimism, reasonable hope.” Words like the ones he finds floating around on the web slash those attempts, he says, and can breed cynicism among those who study cancer.

Overuse of superlatives also damages public understanding. The boastful language creates a distorted picture of the way science works and unrealistic expectations for what science can accomplish in a single study, an OHSU news release noted.  “Many of these superlatives should be reserved for treatments that change the way people with the disease conceptualize their lives because they work so well,” Prasad said. JAMA Oncology published Prasad and Abola’s media analysis on Oct. 29.

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The Use of Superlatives in Cancer Research by Matthew V. Abola and Vinay Prasad; JAMA Oncology, October 29, 2015.