In an article for The Saturday Evening Post last August, Sharon Begley reported on “three large-scale studies, called Phase III clinical trials, presented at the 2009 meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), [which] suggest that cancer vaccines may one day play a role in cancer treatment.” Begley provides plenty of detail on the methods, size, and results of each one, explaining why they may be considered “notable successes.” Yet she cautions against expecting that the research will “open the floodgates for cancer vaccines,” which have seen many, many failures.
In February 2009, an excellent piece in Nature Biotechnology, with reams of supplementary tables and charts, reported that, “To date, an estimated 7,000 people have participated in late-stage clinical trials of active cancer immunotherapies. These have largely been an exercise in frustration, as candidates—including a few that looked quite good in early trials—have fallen by the wayside in pivotal phase 3 trials.”
None of this is to say that cancer vaccines (both the preventive and treatment varieties) don’t deserve more coverage. The approval of Provenge would indeed be a significant step for oncology in the Untied States, and journalists should use it to pitch stories exploring the field. The reporting, however, should display far more caution and judiciousness than found in the Post-Gazette.
[Correction: This story was changed to reflect that Dr. Finn works at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, not the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center.]