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The monoclonal antibody F77 and media “over-hype”

Posted Dec 28 2009 12:00am

“Found, the super molecule to kill prostate cancer cells,” trumpeted the MailOnline. And worse still, “A miracle molecule has been discovered that offers the hope of saving men with currently incurable prostate cancer,” screamed the Press Association.

Of course the truth is vastly less dramatic, and so far we haven’t been able to identify the media release that stimulated these reactions.

These eye-catching headlines were created on the basis of a report by Zhang et al., available on line in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science since earlier this month. What Dr. Zhang and his colleagues have actually shown is that in mice a monoclonal antibody or MAb called F77 binds selectively to cell surface antigens specifically associated with androgen-dependent and androgen-independent prostate cancer cells.

Is this scientifically interesting? Absolutely, it certainly is. Additional data provided by Zhang et al. suggest the possibility that F77 may be able to identify, bind to, and define a unique prostate cancer marker and that F77 may therefore have significant potential in the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer, especially for androgen-independent metastatic prostate cancer.

However, this is a long way from saying that F77 is “A miracle molecule” that can save men with “incurable prostate cancer.” There’s probably another 5 years of research needed before we could even think about the possibility of a clinical trial of F77 to see if it might work in men with prostate cancer.

Media hype based on early science of this type is near to criminally negligent. It’s not as though there is even a tiny, Phase I clinical trial of F77 that anyone with late stage prostate cancer could go and enroll in. In fact, we have no idea whether it is possible to administer F77 to a human at all! On the other hand, the media didn’t all stumble over this paper by accident. Someone, somewhere “set up” this story, and the media “bit,” without doing anything like enough homework.

One of the few things that the media did get right in the coverage of this story is that, to date, we have been monumentally unsuccessful in the development of “targeted” drugs to treat prostate cancer based on MAb technology. However, that isn’t for lack of trying! It seems to be particularly hard to identify MAbs that really are appropriately selective for cell surface or other antigens specifically associated with certain types of cancer. Why is that? We don’t know (yet).

Lots of people (at drug companies and in universities around the world) have been working on this, so maybe F77 is the beginning of a breakthrough. However, readers need to understand that for every 5,000 candidate drugs that make it into animal studies, about 1 will make it all the way through the clinical trials system and get approved to treat a specific disorder in humans.

There is no doubt in my mind that, in time, we will develop MAb-based technologies that can be used to treat men with progressive forms of prostate cancer — and other serious forms of cancer. However, as we struggle toward this difficult goal, it would be helpful if the media could (at least sometimes) resist their desire to “sell newspapers”  and tell something approaching the truth — especially when it comes to the impact on people with life-threatening diseases!

If this is “all the news that’s fit to print,” I’ll stick to reading the prostate cancer literature directly!

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