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The sad state of (Serbian) science news

If you thought the state of American media was bad — and justifiably so — I can assure you that most of the world has it much worse. Every so often I get sent a link to a Serbian news site writing about cancer research, and it is always a disaster. Here is the most recent one, short enough to be quotted fully here (translation courtesy of Google):

A German company presented an anti-cancer drug: The tumor stopped growing in all patients

The German company Biontek (BioNTech) is currently raising hopes with its cancer vaccine CARVac.

The first research results show that tumors can be stopped from growing, and sometimes even reduced. The first successes occurred after two out of four vaccination doses.

Most study participants (59 percent) had their tumors shrink by at least 30 percent. In addition, the tumor stopped growing in almost all patients (95 percent) after vaccination. Like the covid 19 vaccine, the vaccine is based on mRNA technology.

This means that a certain protein is taken into the cell, allowing the body to repair it itself.

The new vaccine was developed by a team led by Biontek founder Ugur Sahin (58) and founder Ozlem Turecci (56).

So far, 44 patients have received it in four doses. Success was particularly high after two doses, after four doses the tumors were reduced by at least 30 percent in just under half (45 percent), and the cancer was stabilized in 74 percent of all patients.

Let me list the ways in which this is a terrible new story:

No source

Where did the data come from? Was it a paper, an abstract, a press release, or a leak? A 2-second journey to DuckDuckGo shows that they were, in fact, presented at the 2023 ESMO Congress, which is the annual gathering of the European Society of Medical Oncology. The Serbian website does mention a Bosnian article as a “source” for there copy/paste job, but that article also doesn’t list where the data came from.

Wrong data

“The first research results…”, the article begins. Being the first is big news. But this aren’t the first results. Some were presented last year at the same congress, and even that was a follow-up of data presented earlier.

Incomplete data

Vaccines make the news, so that’s what they highlight, but the trial is actually of a cell therapy with and without the vaccine. The 44 patients they mention are the ones who got the cell therapy with and without the vaccine, and there is no breakdown of how many of them got the actual vaccine. With cancer vaccine’s abysmal past record No, they are not now being “tried in cancer” after the success in Covid-19. They were, in fact, developed for cancer treatment, experienced failure after failure, and pivoted back to infectious diseases because of Covid-19; and what a good thing for all of us that they did! I highly doubt that the effect we saw was wholly due to the cells, not the vaccine (then again, I work at a cell therapy company). The paper which came out concomitantly with the abstract shows that about the same number of participants who got the vaccine progressed and responded (see Figure 2 for that).

No context

“The tumor stopped growing in all patients”, the headline says. Well, loog at Figure 2 again, it’s what we call a waterfall plot, which is an aspirational name: if the bar goes up from baseline it means that the tumor grew, if it goes down it means that it shrank, so you want it to look like a waterfall. But in 8 of the 21 participants presented in the paper it grew! And in 5 more it barely came down — those count as “stable disease” because measuring tumors is not a precise science and a pixel here or there on the digital ruler can make all the difference. In only 8 of the participants did the tumor shrink, and in only one of those did it go away completely.

This is, I’m sad to say, about what you would expect for a Phase 1 trial of a cancer drug. Most patients who make it to such a trial have slow-growing tumors, and having a “stable disease” in that context — where you are allowed to have the tumor grow by 20% before calling it “progression” — is perfectly meaningless. Note that you will find terms like “disease control rate” or “clinical benefit rate” which combine participants whose tumors shrunk with those who had this “stable disease”. Those two metrics are also meaningless without a control group.

This became longer than I intended so I’ll stop here, but yes, it’s a sad state. It reminds me of dostarlimab, only much worse since in that case there was at least clear evidence that the drug was good, the only thing missing was context. Caveat lector!

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