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If A Cancer Drug Is Described As A Miracle, It Probably Isn't




If you hear superlatives like “breakthrough” or “miracle” to describe a new cancer drug, take it with a pinch of salt — according to a new study out of OHSU.

Dr. Vinay Prasad with the Knight Cancer Institute looked at media coverage during five days this summer.

He put the phrase “cancer drug” into Google then took turns adding 10 superlatives, like "game changer” and "home run.”

“We found that 14 percent of the drugs that we looked at had never been given to a human being. It was based only on how well the drug worked on mice or in a laboratory," he said.

"We know that that’s a very poor predictor of what actually succeeds in the long-run.”

Prasad says superlatives generate unrealistic expectations and create a distorted picture of the way science works.

He says all kinds of news outlets, from those published internationally to trade journals, fell into the trap. But it wasn’t just journalists who used superlatives. The study found 27 percent of doctors also used them to describe their work.

He says the use of superlatives like "game changer" can be used sometimes, for example, to describe the cancer drug Gleevec.

Prasad’s study is published in the journal JAMA Oncology.

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Kristian Foden-Vencil is a reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He specializes in health care, business, politics, law and public safety.