Inflated descriptions of new cancer drugs, as well as an absence of medical context, may lead to misunderstanding among readers, according to a research letter published in JAMA Oncology.

The research, led by Dr Vinay Prasad from the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health and Science University, looked at the use of modest and superlative descriptors in contemporary news articles about cancer drugs. 

The authors concluded: “Whereas most new cancer drugs afford modest benefits, approved drugs or those in development may be heralded as ‘game changers’ or ‘breakthroughs’ in the lay press. These news articles may be important sources of information to patients, the public, and investors — with a broader reach than medical journal articles. However, omission of medical context or use of inflated descriptors may lead to misunderstandings among readers.”

Half of the drugs described had not received approval from the Food and Drug Administration and 14 percent were described by superlatives in the absence of clinical data.

The research also looked at who used the inflated superlatives. Journalists topped the list (55 percent) and, in the majority of cases, the superlative was used by the author of the article without any other attribution. The authors point out that the journalists “may not have the expertise to identify the most promising medical therapies, or what magnitude of benefit warrants a superlative”.