Thursday, January 20, 2011

Melanoma and the Gray Lady

I have to give the Melanoma Research Foundation credit for keeping The New York Times on the case. Yesterday’s article, “Drug to Fight Melanoma Prolonged Life in Trial," was written by Amy Harmon, who has followed therapeutic drug developments in melanoma over the last couple of years and written a series of good pieces. Given my medical history, you can probably understand my mixed feelings when I read one of these stories. They often send a chill down my spine. There but for the grace of God go I.

It’s been an eventful 12 months in melanoma research, but that fact wouldn’t necessarily be known by the public if vested interests didn't agitate for coverage. I suspect there’s been some persistent PR pressure applied behind the scenes by the MRF, which is standard practice in journalism. Even diligent medical reporters can’t be omniscient, and to Harmon’s credit, she senses the news value of drugs that appear to have some clinical promise in the otherwise desolate world of melanoma therapy. When a prominent news organization like the NYTimes decides to cover a subject, enormous exposure follows. Its website is the most popular online newspaper site in the U.S., receiving more than 18 million unique visitors a month. The stories it publishes about melanoma are typically among those most e-mailed by readers. To engender public advocacy and stimulate research investment, media coverage like this is priceless.

The monoclonal antibody drug, ipilimumab, which is the subject of the NYTimes article cited above, was also the theme of the #1 most-read and e-mailed article in 2010 on, one of the top online sites for oncology information. "Ipilimumab and melanoma: Rejoicing, disappointment and threat," was written by another distinguished medical reporter, Lois Wingerson, with whom I crossed paths years ago when I was editor of Diagnostic Imaging. Lois’ story is a concise summary of how ipi works and puts its clinical prospects into proper perspective. She’s frank about calling out clinical researchers for having hyped the prospects for monoclonal antibody drugs in general.

“This (the development of ipilimimab) is not a miracle tale. It's a gritty reality, with as much disappointment as rejoicing, and also a hint of threat.”
While tracking news about melanoma I also stumbled upon a story posted this week by the Associated Press, “Cancer survivor aims to raze barriers with app.” It’s remarkable how a brush with cancer can bring out the creative energy in some people. This story relates how a melanoma survivor in San Francisco who happens to be an e-commerce businessman wants to capitalize on the so-called open science movement to develop a computer app for the sharing of cancer research and treatment data.

"I'm just trying to pull together all the pieces that are needed to do a real, rational attack on cancer," (Marty) Tenenbaum says. The way to do that, he says, is to pull people out of their individual labs, offices and hospitals to collaborate in a way not possible before the Web and mobile technologies made it easy to pool vast amounts of information.

"How much of cancer could be turned into a manageable disease if we only knew what we knew?"
I’m all for advancing cancer treatment and research by forging connections on as broad a scale as possible. We need to know what works. None of us should have to claw our way through the maze of treatment options, clinical trials and research, as Tenenbaum did, in his effort to survive. Patients need help to effectively advocate for themselves. Easy access to a critical mass of information that's shared electronically by physicians, scientists and patients would be a boon. The collective wisdom of us all could then be brought to bear on the challenges we face in negotiating our way through the perplexities of cancer care.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

After listening to Dr. Atul Gawande interviewed on NPR, then reading his latest New Yorker article on US medical costs, I happened to meet my nephew’s employer (the CEO of KaloBios, a pharmaceutical biotech company), who, with my nephew, described the vagaries of “humanizing” rat cells- a re-sequencing of their DNA. This is done so as to use the rat cells in humans to cure leukemia.
All of this made me feel quite the common man. With very little understanding of what the hell is going on in either medical research or healthcare- and I work in that same industry. Thanks for taking the time to keep explaining some of this seemingly stochastic news and information that hits us daily.