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Study: Superlative use by media overhypes medical research

Terms employed by writers to generate interest often overstate the potential of experimental cancer treatments.

By
Stephen Feller
Words such as breakthrough and game changer can be appropriate for some drug research, but generally they increase hype over an incremental accomplishment by scientists. Photo by Anawat Sudchanham/Shutterstock
Words such as "breakthrough" and "game changer" can be appropriate for some drug research, but generally they increase hype over an incremental accomplishment by scientists. Photo by Anawat Sudchanham/Shutterstock

PORTLAND, Ore., Nov. 2 (UPI) -- Snappy headlines with flashy words work well to gain interest with readers.

In the case of health reporting, however, the overuse of superlative terms such as "breakthrough," "game changer," and "cure" was found in a new study to be widespread and may create unrealistic hype about unproven drugs, researchers said.

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The terms, often found in press releases and headlines, are used regularly in reports on cancer treatment developments. While new concepts such as targeted therapies have the potential make a big difference in the lives of patients, cancer treatment tends to develop in modest steps rather than earth-shaking breakthroughs.

Researchers said scientists and journalists should both be careful when employing superlatives, using them for drugs that have been shown to change people's lives -- such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's "breakthrough therapies" program, which speeds up the approval process for drugs that "demonstrate substantial improvement over existing therapies on one or more clinically significant endpoints."

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"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 Dr. Vinay Prasad, an assistant professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University's School of Medicine, in a press release. "We found that superlatives were used to describe drugs that have never been tested in people, based on only animal or laboratory data. Such language is always inappropriate and concerning given that so many drugs fail in the transition from the laboratory to human beings."

The researchers conducted searches on Google News during June 21, 2015, and June 25, 2015, pairing the phrase "cancer drug" with ten superlatives: "breakthrough," "game changer," "miracle," "cure," "home run," "revolutionary," "transformative," "life saver," "groundbreaking," and "marvel."

The search revealed 94 articles published by 66 news organizations using 97 superlative references for cancer research. Among 97 superlatives used, targeted therapy made up nearly half, at 40 percent, while 38 percent referred to an immunologic checkpoint inhibitor, 10 percent referenced a cytotoxic drug, 5 percent discussed a therapeutic cancer vaccine, 3 percent did not name the drug, 2 percent referred to a radiotherapy, and 1 percent referred to gene therapy.

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The articles referred to 36 specific drugs, though three articles did not name the drug they referred to. Targeted therapy drugs were the subject of 47 percent of drug-specific pieces, with 25 percent about cytoxic drugs, 14 percent about immunotherapy checkpoint inhibitors, 8 percent about cancer vaccines and 1 was about gene therapy.

Half the drugs written about in the 36 articles also had not received FDA approval, and five of the articles used superlatives about treatments that had been tested with mice, cells or other preclinical work, but not with humans.

While superlative use often came from sources -- 27 percent from doctors, 9 percent from medical industry experts, 8 percent from patients, and 1 percent was from a member of the U.S. Congress -- 55 percent were used by the author of an article without attributing the words to a source.

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"Journalists may not have the expertise needed to back up those superlative phrases," Prasad said. "Because patients and their families turn to media for research and information, we need to raise awareness on this issue."

The study is published in JAMA Oncology.

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