Home Heart Disease Treatment A Pill To Treat Cancer And Heart Disease (Miracle Cure Or Media Hype?)

A Pill To Treat Cancer And Heart Disease (Miracle Cure Or Media Hype?)

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In a recent New York Times article, physician-author&nbsp;Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote about a clinical trial that he characterized as “beautiful,” for potentially illuminating a surprising connection between heart disease and cancer. Mukherjee is a justifiably acclaimed writer, who publishes regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times, and who won a Pulitzer for his bestselling book The Emperor of All Maladies. But I wonder whether the demands of popular writing have caused him to hype a treatment that, while promising, is far from proven.

The treatment targets inflammation by inhibiting an interleukin molecule. Researchers conducted a huge clinical trial to see whether the treatment would reduce the kind of inflammation that damages arteries. But Mukherjee didn’t write about the drug because of its ability to prevent heart attacks or strokes. Instead, he was excited about the trial because a secondary analysis of the data showed a “drop in all cancer mortality” and a “stark decrease” in deaths from lung cancer.

Mukherjee knows that secondary analyses like this need to be viewed with caution. Measure enough outcomes in a clinical trial, and the statistics of chance predict that the intervention will falsely appear to reduce some kind of medical problem or other. He even acknowledges that this cancer finding needs to be replicated. However, he isn’t content to urge readers to remain in a state of scientific caution, proclaiming that “if the benefit holds up in future trials, interleukin-1-beta inhibition could eventually rank among the most effective prevention strategies in the recent history of cancer.”

Holy moly, that’s a&nbsp;misleading sentence! Consider some equally true sentences I could excite readers with:

  • If the [pick any sports team that wins the first three games of a given season] keeps up their winning ways, they will go undefeated for the next three seasons.
  • If my three-year-old son keeps growing at this rate for the next 25 years, he’ll soon be ten feet tall.

The problem with Mukherjee’s caution is that he undermines it with “if-then” hyperbole. Yes, if the trial results are confirmed, the treatment will potentially be a great way to reduce deaths from cancer. But if the results aren’t confirmed, it will be another promising drug that didn’t pan out.

Mukherjee compounds this if-then recklessness with a poetic analogy, that winds its way toward one of the most dangerous words in health reporting—miracle.

“It’s as if we had walked into the basement of a new house, found the fuse box, learned to read the coded language of the labels and—in the partial darkness—pull just one switch. And, miracle of miracles: Upstairs, only the living-room lights went on.”

The anti-inflammatory medication Mukherjee wrote about doesn’t qualify as a miracle yet, and might never do so.

There are many ways to write well about science. The best science writers make readers desire to engage with complicated ideas. And they remember that the poetry of their writing should never get ahead of the realities of the science they are writing about.

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In a recent New York Times article, physician-author Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote about a clinical trial that he characterized as “beautiful,” for potentially illuminating a surprising connection between heart disease and cancer. Mukherjee is a justifiably acclaimed writer, who publishes regularly in The New Yorker and The New York Times, and who won a Pulitzer for his bestselling book The Emperor of All Maladies. But I wonder whether the demands of popular writing have caused him to hype a treatment that, while promising, is far from proven.

The treatment targets inflammation by inhibiting an interleukin molecule. Researchers conducted a huge clinical trial to see whether the treatment would reduce the kind of inflammation that damages arteries. But Mukherjee didn’t write about the drug because of its ability to prevent heart attacks or strokes. Instead, he was excited about the trial because a secondary analysis of the data showed a “drop in all cancer mortality” and a “stark decrease” in deaths from lung cancer.

Mukherjee knows that secondary analyses like this need to be viewed with caution. Measure enough outcomes in a clinical trial, and the statistics of chance predict that the intervention will falsely appear to reduce some kind of medical problem or other. He even acknowledges that this cancer finding needs to be replicated. However, he isn’t content to urge readers to remain in a state of scientific caution, proclaiming that “if the benefit holds up in future trials, interleukin-1-beta inhibition could eventually rank among the most effective prevention strategies in the recent history of cancer.”

Holy moly, that’s a misleading sentence! Consider some equally true sentences I could excite readers with:

  • If the [pick any sports team that wins the first three games of a given season] keeps up their winning ways, they will go undefeated for the next three seasons.
  • If my three-year-old son keeps growing at this rate for the next 25 years, he’ll soon be ten feet tall.

The problem with Mukherjee’s caution is that he undermines it with “if-then” hyperbole. Yes, if the trial results are confirmed, the treatment will potentially be a great way to reduce deaths from cancer. But if the results aren’t confirmed, it will be another promising drug that didn’t pan out.

Mukherjee compounds this if-then recklessness with a poetic analogy, that winds its way toward one of the most dangerous words in health reporting—miracle.

“It’s as if we had walked into the basement of a new house, found the fuse box, learned to read the coded language of the labels and—in the partial darkness—pull just one switch. And, miracle of miracles: Upstairs, only the living-room lights went on.”

The anti-inflammatory medication Mukherjee wrote about doesn’t qualify as a miracle yet, and might never do so.

There are many ways to write well about science. The best science writers make readers desire to engage with complicated ideas. And they remember that the poetry of their writing should never get ahead of the realities of the science they are writing about.


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