Anyone who knows anything about drug research knows to beware terms like “miracle” or “breakthrough” when used to describe a possible new treatment. There are such things, but they’re out numbered by the press releases and clueless reports that describe every other result as an amazing advance in human knowledge. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Companies (especially smaller ones trying to make deals) hype their technology, and on the academic side, university press offices are notoriously off-kilter when it comes to putting their own schools’ work in context.
So all sorts of stuff gets whooped up. This article from JAMA Oncology will give you some statistics, based on searches on Google News. “Miracle”, “cure”, “revolutionary” and so on turn out to get thrown around so much in the cancer field that at least half the time, the potential therapy hasn’t even made it to the FDA. You might theoretically be able to justify that – if something came along and flat-out cured everyone in a Phase II trial, yeah, that would be a breakthrough, but how often does that happen? And in about one out of seven cases, there’s no human data to back up those adjectives at all.
This hoorah isn’t harmless. Some readers will have their hopes raised prematurely (way prematurely, in the case of those rodent and cell culture results). Others will recall how many times they’ve seen that sort of talk before, with nothing much to show for it, and conclude that either (1) the medical news, top to bottom, is all lying crap, and/or (2) that the Powers That Be are making sure that none of these breakthroughs ever actually make it into use, because Evil Reasons. Neither of those worldviews helps much. A distressing amount of the medical news in the popular press is crap, for sure, but not all of it is. And writing this blog has given me constant reminders over the years that the general public really doesn’t have a good idea of the real failure rates of drug research, which makes it easier to conspiracy-mongering to take hold. (It also makes it easier for the endless supply of frauds to get a hearing). Either way, you end up with lots of people holding the whole effort in mild (or not-so-mild) contempt, which isn’t what we need. Got enough of that on hand already, thanks.