New Drug Discovery-How to Search for the Truth Behind the News

Ever so often, the media will highlight yet another ‘wonder drug’ that will revolutionise the way a disease is treated..raising much hope amongst consumers. Yet, if one cares to scan the news a bit deeper, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Take for example this item widely reported in many newspapers worldwide:

“Scientists have unveiled a new drug for prostate cancer which  could help up to 80 per cent of patients with the aggressive and previously untreatable form of the disease.”   –the Telegraph,22nd July 2008.

On reading the fine print, 2 facts emerge in this article:

  1. This drug was tried on only 21 patients.

2.  This study is a Phase One Trial, meaning the drug was at the stage  of being tested to assess its safety but not yet its efficacy.

In other words, it would be many years before the drug would be available, assuming it passes the the other phases of the trial and no untoward side-effects appear during this process. In the best scenario, the drug will appear after a few years and it will be costly(you bet!); and in the worse-case scenario, it will be consigned to the waste-basket due to the presence of terrible side-effects which hitherto had not yet been detected.

Take the case of another popular drug, Vytorin. When it was first introduced 5 years ago, it was touted to not only lower blood cholesterol, but it also claimed that that the narrowed arteries could appear less narrow. The ENHANCE study disproved the latter -it was published in March this year although the study was completed 2 years ago! I do not understand why the results were delayed by 2 years..(It has been reported that the sales of Vytorin has fallen 40% since the release of the study in March).

  Video:Comment from TIME magazine concerning Misleading Ads

So why does the media appear to overplay new drug discoveries?

Put it simply, such items are big news..and news sells! Not forgetting, of course, the commercial benefits the company producing the drugs receive, or the publicity it attracts to the researchers concerned.

What can we learn from all this? Some tips on how to evaluate news items that you may come across..

  • It is a fact that competition is intense among medical journals, research bodies and medical journals to attract media attention. Media themselves compete with each other to come out with the latest. Try to read the same news from several sources. Obviously, if the item is reported in just one obscure source, it should carry less weight.
  • Look for key-words like suggestive or may (as opposed to will) as this does not always indicate a cause and effect meaning. Many people make hard-core assumptions based on such words.
  • It is the nature of scientific studies that for a given topic, several would say one thing and a few would say the complete opposite. It is for the trained professional and their peer-groups to make an informed decision to advise consumers. Bear in mind that space is a premium with the mass media and such reports usually omit vital details which will affect accuracy.
  • Personally, I feel reports originating from researchers and pharma companies should not appear in the mass media without vetting by an appropriate professional body so as to convey the proper perspective to the audience at large. So if a news report originates from a professional body, that would be worth listening to.
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