Can You Spot a Fake?
Posted on August 13, 2013
If you follow cancer-related news, you know staying up to speed with the constant pour of innovations and research can be overwhelming. On top of that, it can be hard to tell whether information on the web is legitimate or if it’s fallen victim to media hype. To help you tease out what’s promising versus what’s propaganda, we asked Dr. Laura Porter how she determines what a good study is. Here’s what she said:
Start by asking questions.
- Where is the information published and who reviewed it? Many times information in the popular press has gone through several hands before being published and the message can become muddled. Go to the original publication (there is usually a link), look at the abstract and read the introduction and the conclusion.
- Who did the study? Research can be done by a single office, institution or by a large group. Beware of information NOT coming from large cooperative groups such as ECOG (Eastern Cooperative Oncology Group). Large multi-center clinical trials are usually conducted through ClinicalTrials.gov and are more scrutinized than smaller single institution studies.
- How many people were in the study? Large numbers are not always necessary, but if a conclusion is drawn through a study of 60 people or less, I am cautious of the information. If a small study looks promising, the conclusion usually states that further investigations are necessary before conclusions can be drawn.
- Was the study done with human subjects? If the study was done in vitro, it was done in a dish. In this case, it’s too early to say that the results can be applied to humans. In fact, just to get to human testing may take another 2-5 years.
Be wary of definitive words, like “will” and “always.”
The media will sometimes add its own superlatives to make a trial appear better than it is. For example, compare the titles of two articles released last month about the same study: New wonder drug matches and kills all kinds of cancer — human testing starts 2014 vs. Anti-CD47 antibody may offer new route to successful cancer vaccination. The first was run by the New York Post, the second was the original release from the researchers at Stanford; compare the phrase “new wonder drug” to “antibody may offer.”
If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is.
If the latest and greatest thing comes out and interests you, discuss it with your medical team before trying anything. Remember that one or two studies does not make something fact. Case in point: magnesium and calcium in the prevention of neuropathy.
- In 2004, a paper was presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology Symposium saying the administration of calcium and magnesium decreased chemotherapy induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN), so practice was changed to incorporate the two.
- In 2007, another paper was presented stating calcium and magnesium decreased the effectiveness of oxaliplatin, a chemotherapy drug, so practice was changed again.
- In 2008, a study said that the two minerals do not decrease oxaliplatin’s effectiveness, so practice changed yet again.
- This year, the “definitive” study said calcium and magnesium do not decrease CIPN and it doesn’t look like they decrease the usefulness of oxaliplatin, but the final results are not in.
- The preliminary recommendation: do not use calcium and magnesium for the prevention of neuropathy.
Progress in the treatment of colon cancer is sometimes slow, but safety and the ability to reproduce results are very important. If you’re having a hard time sifting through the info, try Cancer.net or OncUView, two solid sites I often turn to. I hope this helps, and happy reading!
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