We all know that press releases are, by definition, designed to highlight positive news. And that’s being generous. But a pair of rather skimpy releases issued by biopharma companies over the past few days takes the notion of spin to a new and troubling level.
In the first case, Medarex last weekend issued a release saying a Mayo Clinic study of two men found that its experimental prostate cancer drug had their tumors shrink dramatically. Oddly, as the Associated Press noted, there was no info on how many people participated in the trial, whether other patients improved or worsened, how long they had survived or whether the study is an early, midstage or late-stage trial. Moreover, the two men still had to undergo surgery to remove the remaining tumors. Just the same, Medarex stock popped more than 20 percent on the news.
A couple of days later, Chroma Therapeutics issued a release touting an alliance with GlaxoSmithKline to use its technology to discover and develop four compounds to treat inflammatory disease. The deal has the “potential” to generate more than $1 billion if all four programs are successful, but no other figures concerning milestone and option payments were mentioned. As The In Vivo Blog pointed out, that $1 billion is highly contingent on all sorts of hurdles being cleared. But how often does anything go according to plan? Nonetheless, the eye-popping $1 b figure was duly noted by various mainstream and trade media.
We asked Reuters‘ Ben Hirschler for his take on the Chroma story and he wrote us that reporting such announcements is a “perennial issue, because the smaller partner routinely wants to play up the maximum figure, while details of the terms are often not disclosed. We always stress the number is a potential payout that depends on success in development and payments could be years away. You could, as you say, argue such figures are spin … since it is unlikely the company will actually hit the jackpot and get the top payout. But … reporting the ”up to” figure (alongside the much smaller upfront element) can be useful for investors, because it gives an indication of how significant any successful drugs from a collaboration could be, if everything goes right.”
In these two cases, however, vital info was missing from the press releases, which made it virtually impossible to make useful comparisons. Meanwhile, the companies still succeeded in getting across their bottom-line messages and impressions. We’re not suggesting that such press releases should be ignored. But companies need to be held accountable for such omissions or journalists may find these gambits will become an accepted practice.