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Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute

T cell cancer immunotherapy

More than 30,000 cancer experts have descended on Chicago to share a glimpse of the latest in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment across all types of cancer. The American Society for Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting is the largest of its kind in the world. And this means the research on show makes headlines. Lots of them.

We’re here in Chicago to see for ourselves what’s hot. And will be giving you a daily roundup of the media coverage that emerges.

This media coverage comes with several notes of caution though. Most of the results being shared at the conference are a preliminary look at ongoing clinical trials, and in some cases those trials are at an early stage. The researchers are also tasked with delivering these updates in incredibly short talks. This, combined with the media’s hunt for a good story, means that details can be missed, confusingly presented or the scale and stage of a study not made clear to the reader.

So, to help you judge these media stories for yourself, we’ve written this 6-point cheat sheet on what to look out for.

Now, on to our rolling coverage of the latest ASCO news.

Day 2 – Saturday 2 June

The hunt for the ‘holy grail’ continues with lung cancer blood test

Following yesterday’s excitable reports on a cancer blood test, a company that many have their eyes on in this area – Grail – released the latest update on its experimental blood test for lung cancer. The bottom line: the technology is getting more precise, and the results suggest that signs of early stage lung cancer can be detected in blood samples from patients already diagnosed. But there’s a long way to go before this could be widely used to detect undiagnosed cases early.

STAT News had the must-read piece covering the results: Grail’s cancer blood test shows ‘proof of principle,’ but challenges remain.

Immunotherapy for prostate cancer

In an illuminating example of how the media sometimes reports on early stage research, there was widespread excited coverage of a small trial looking at using the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda) to treat men with advanced prostate cancer.

Immunotherapy is an exciting approach to treatment but it’s well-established that it doesn’t work for every patient, and this trial was no exception. A very small proportion of men – 10-15% – showed a response to the drug – and because this is a phase 2 trial, ‘response’ range from their cancer staying the same size, shrinking, up to a complete disappearance of the tumour. So the proportion of men whose cancer actually shrank is even smaller than the 10-15% who ‘responded’.

In an interesting alternative perspective on this, a reporter in a conference session on ‘covering cancer in the media’ suggested that sometimes it would be more honest to flip the stats around – and in that case, we’d be reporting that about 90% of patients on this prostate cancer trial got no benefit from the drug.

How long should patients be checked after cancer treatment?

The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Guardian jumped on research trying to put a number on how long people should be monitored after cancer treatment, and the best way to do that monitoring. This is no easy feat, with the chance of cancers coming back varying for several reasons. The data used in the study came from the US. And in the UK, these monitoring times are set by clinical guidelines.

“There’s limited evidence on the best way to follow up many types of cancer and for how long after treatment,” says Dr Richard Roope Cancer Research UK’s senior clinical adviser and GP expert. “Often it is unclear whether doing regular scans and tests is useful or whether it is better to rely on physical examination by a doctor or nurse and the self-reporting of symptoms by patients.”

Day 1 – Friday June 1

‘Holy grail’ blood test

The UK’s media pounced on the story of an experimental blood test that can detect different cancers in some people who have already been diagnosed with those cancers. But a key thing to spot is that the test also missed some cancers. And it has yet to be put through its paces in diagnosing cancer in people who don’t already know they have it.

The unpublished results made several front pages in the UK. And the potential output was portrayed as a simple blood test that can detect multiple types of cancer before symptoms occur. This is an exciting idea, and one researchers really are pursuing. But this doesn’t really tally with what the research shows so far.

Do black and white men fare differently on prostate cancer treatment?

On day one, the ASCO media team turned its focus towards disparities in cancer treatment.

Two prostate cancer studies were selected as highlights to be shared with journalists. In both cases, the results suggest that black men may do as well or better on certain treatments for advanced prostate cancer than white men.

The research, along with other studies focusing on gender and geographical differences, highlights the importance of inclusive and representative clinical trial design – something that will be vital in making treatment truly personal.

Follow along

You can keep an eye on the conference by following #ASCO18 on Twitter. And we’ll be updating this post throughout the conference as new headlines break

Nick Peel and Nell Barrie, from the ASCO meeting in Chicago.

2 Jun 2018

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