Cancer treatments: False hope or breakthrough treatments?

zytiga-SS-scientistCorrespondent Scott Pelley and more than a few doctors and patients were throwing around the word “cure” during a 60 Minutes segment on cancer Sunday.   Eleven of the 22 patients treated so far died, but the other 11 have seen their tumors shrink. Three featured in the story are cancer-free.  Even with these promising results we have to remember that these are Phase I trials.


According to Arlene Weintraub over at Forbes online polio is far from the only virus being studied as a cancer treatment. There are more than a half-dozen companies with genetically engineered viruses making their way through the development path, including biotech giant Amgen It made waves in 2011 when it shelled out $425 million plus $575 million in milestone commitments to buy Biovex, which invented a herpes-based treatment for melanoma.

As promising as this drug is, no one is using the word “cure” to describe it. In one trial, 16% of patients who got the experimental treatment saw their tumors shrink for at least six months, compared to 2% of patients in the control group. A later Phase III trial produced a “durable response” but missed the endpoint for overall survival.


David Kroll, also on Forbes had a more balanced approach.

At the outset, Pelley made it sound like very few advances have been made in cancer treatment over the last 100 years: “The long war on cancer has left us well short of victory. Radiation flashed on in the 19th century, chemotherapy began to drip in the 20th but, for so many, 100 years of research adds up to just a few more months of life.” That’s partly true, but partly nonsense. Tremendous strides have been made within many cancers, from childhood leukemia cures to cancer survivors who are counting decades since their treatment. The program needn’t have denigrated how far we’ve come to show the promise of the viral therapy. It’s impressive enough on its own.

The emotional power of the two people who are in remission, particularly the first recipient, Stephanie Lipscomb, was so positively overwhelming that I don’t think the risks were fully balanced by the story of another patient who did not do well and withdrew from the study. The positive anecdotes were very compelling and a viewer hoping to get into subsequent trials might be overly optimistic. While I mentioned above that I liked the fact the the 11 of 22 response statistics were a valuable inclusion, the amount of time given to that point led to its underrepresentation.


So where does the leave patients?

Is a little hope better than no hope when you have be given months to live due to cancer?  I would say probably but it’s going to be left to the medical community, not the sensational media, to communicate realistic expectations in any cancer treatment early in development.

While we have made enormous strides in cancer treatment we have a long way to go because cancer is both hard to treat and is different from patient to patient.  In my opinion the 60 Minutes was not balanced and was more sensational although they did say 11 of 22 patients were doing better.  It’s once again left to Oncologists and patients to get answers to questions for which there may be no clear answer and with medicine nothing is rarely as black and white as treatment-cure.