Did you hear the one about Pfizer's new drug for advanced breast cancer?
It goes something like this: A new Pfizer drug combined with an existing cancer drug "achieved its primary endpoint by demonstrating a statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvement in progression-free survival" in certain cases of advanced or metastatic breast cancer. "We are delighted with the final data, which suggest the potential for palbociclib to transform the standard of care for post-menopausal women with ER+ and HER2- advanced breast cancer," a Pfizer vice president said in a company press release.
Or as Everdeen Mason at the Wall Street Journal put it, the study of the drug showed "the potential for palbociclib to transform the standard of care for post-menopausal women with ER+ and HER2- advanced breast cancer."
Wait a minute. That comes directly from the press release, which also said this: "Detailed efficacy and safety data from PALOMA-1 will be submitted for presentation at the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) Annual Meeting 2014 scheduled for April 5-9th in San Diego."
Or, as the Journal put it, "The drug maker plans to present data from the study at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in April."
Is the Wall Street Journal, one of the world's most distinguished business publications, uncritically repeating what's in the Pfizer press release? And is it plugging this drug even though we haven't yet seen the data on whether the drug works? Yes on both counts.
What's wrong with these guys?
Surely Linda A. Johnson, a business writer at the Associated Press, didn't fall for Pfizer's unsupported claims. She wrote, "The world's second-biggest drug maker said the drug, compared with another medicine called letrozole, increased the time patients survived without tumors growing, compared with women just getting letrozole." And the evidence? "Pfizer said it plans to release detailed results from the latest study, called PALOMA-1, at the American Association for Cancer Research meeting in San Diego in early April."
The AP got sucked into this, too.
The problem is that this story was covered by business reporters rather than medical reporters, who by and large are too smart to fall for a company's claim about a drug without seeing the evidence presented, reviewed, and debated.
The further problem is that because they are so smart, medical writers mostly declined to cover this story. Which left the business writers out there alone, telling the story the company wanted them to tell.
The Motley Fool, a website for investors, gives us a hint of why Pfizer might have been eager to release this news now–and why it might have hoped for an uncritical reception. "It was only a few short week ago," the Fool reports, "that Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) delivered investors bad news in the form of a failed late stage trial for a key lung cancer drug. Now, Pfizer is back again, but this time it's giving investors new hope that palbociclib, a breast cancer treatment in mid stage studies, can power sales over the coming years."
Hey, we can't let the memory of failure cloud the air, Pfizer's execs must have said. We need a success to clear the fog!
Pfizer's job is to make money and boost the price of its stock. For doing that job, some of its executives will be very handsomely remunerated.
The reporters who helped Pfizer with this job by uncritically reporting Pfizer's claims have helped those execs earn that money, none of which will flow back to the reporters.
The people who lose are the people those reporters are writing for.