Hype vs. hope in cancer research

If you’ve noticed a flood of news this past week about the latest developments in cancer treatment, it’s because the American Society of Clinical Oncology just wrapped up its annual meeting.

The event is always a big deal. Cancer researchers and clinicians get to rub shoulders while attending scientific and education sessions to hear about what’s happening on the cutting edge. Dozens of papers are presented on topics ranging from cancer prevention and epidemiology to tumor biology, experimental therapies and patient and survivor care.

One way or another, key research findings end up in the news, where they often are hyped as "promising" or "breakthrough." These labels may make for good sound bites, and they can quickly catch the attention of the public. Unfortunately, though, they’re often premature. And in the overheated atmosphere surrounding an event the size of the annual ASCO gathering, it can be hard to tell where the facts leave off and the hot air takes over.

In fact, American Cancer Society officials took the unusual step recently of warning against the tendency to oversimplify the issues and potentially mislead the public. In a column published at CNN.com, Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, writes about how events such as the ASCO annual meeting have become commercialized and the effect this has had on the information that’s filtered down to the public:

Doctors find themselves asking when promotion of a product or a company stops being education and becomes a naked attempt at advertising. Companies have found that the investors watch these meetings like a hawk, looking for the earliest bit of data that may show promising results for a new drug.

Successful promotion of positive findings through meeting abstracts and press releases can double or triple a small company’s share price. But observers note a troubling trend. It is a shame that the desire to pump up a stock price often leads to over-promotion and exaggeration of paltry scientific findings.

Recently, the economic crisis in the media has led to the disappearance, through layoffs or by choice, of some wonderful, skilled and seasoned science writers. And with that comes genuine concern. The veterans have been replaced by mostly young, inexperienced writers who suddenly find themselves under pressure to turn out compelling stories about difficult scientific medical studies that are all too easy to oversimplify and misinterpret.

What should the public – and patients – make of this? More to the point, what are the implications for translating cancer research into terms that are readily understandable by the average person?

The real news, suggests Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, is that cancer is an extremely challenging disease to unravel and treat successfully, and that we need to be more cautious with our optimism. Lichtenfeld, the deputy chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, writes:

We continue to develop effective treatments, but the expectations of a targeted therapy’s promise are coming to terms with the reality that cancer is a complex disease and a wily foe. In fact, we are not progressing quite as rapidly as we thought we would just a few years ago.

What we’re learning about the genomics of cancer likely will lead to increasingly specific treatments for subsets of patients most likely to benefit from a given therapy, Lichtenfeld writes.

Going forward, our researchers will continue discovering more complexities in cancer cells and provide more opportunities to develop new therapies. They will continue to uncover markers in cancers that will assist doctors in understanding how a particular patient’s cancer will behave and what type of treatment, if any, is needed. These markers will help offer guidance on which drugs will work in which situations.

The lack of a quick fix isn’t the news most people want to hear. This isn’t necessarily discouraging. Indeed, it helps clarify that the way forward needs to lie with continued research into cancer genomics and how to tailor the right treatment to the right patient. But it’s not going to happen as rapidly as we’d like. As Dr. Lichtenfeld concludes, "The sad reality is that patience remains a virtue."

Image: Chicago, site of the ASCO 2010 annual meeting, June 4-8. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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