Cancer data fly and reporters struggle to keep up

For health journalists, the annual meeting of the American Association of Clinical Oncology poses a double-barreled challenge: How to cope with the sheer number of presentations and how to figure out which experimental cancer treatments might be the real deal?

Mammography image of cancerous breast tissue.
Mammography image of cancerous breast tissue. Image courtesy of National Cancer Institute.

The stories are already flying out of Orlando, Fla., where the meeting got rolling over the weekend. One hot topic is a new approach to treating tough breast cancers. Several experimental drugs that inhibit the ability of cancer cells to repair themselves show promise. Baylor’s Powel Brown told Bloomberg the drugs, known as PARP inhibitors, “are the biggest story in breast cancer, by far.” (See ASCO’s press release here.)

Even though the PARP results look good in preliminary clinical tests, cancer specialists cautioned that larger studies are needed and that nobody expects the drugs to cure patients with advanced disease, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Even if PARP inhibitors being developed by Sanofi-Aventis, Abbott Labs and Merck pan out, they won’t be on the market for years. And if they make it, how much will they cost? Too soon to say.

But a story in Forbes serves as a reminder that even incremental advances in cancer care have come at a high cost. “We would like to believe that cost should be no object, but that is not reality,” Leonard Saltz, a colon-cancer expert at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, told Forbes.

Matthew Herper, who’s covering ASCO for Forbes, gives some reporting tips in an e-mail to Covering Health. “It’s important to talk to as many doctors as possible, and to be able to ask a few you know well and trust for their opinion,” he writes. “I also think pitches from PR firms and companies are useful for helping identify things that might be interesting, but that it’s important to approach each scientific presentation with an open mind about whether the result is positive or negative.”

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