Experts Say Vice May Have Overstated Case in ‘Killing Cancer’

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: David Mills

Cancer experts are raising a caution flag about an HBO program that profiled new cancer treatments and declared scientists may finally be on the verge of curing the deadly disease.

William C. Phelps, Ph.D., a program director at the American Cancer Society, said he is “very excited” about the treatments highlighted in the “Killing Cancer” report, but he feels the program may have “overstated a bit” the outlook for a cure.

“I have every reason to believe we will succeed,” said Phelps. “I don’t want to throw cold water all over this, but it’s too early.”

Dr. Mikkael Sekeres, director of Cleveland Clinic’s leukemia program, also provided cautionary advice.

Sekeres said leukemia patients have responded well to CAR T-cell therapy, which is featured in the show, with some achieving full remission. However, he said, a majority of these types of patients have relapsed within one year of their treatment.

“So, while the response rates we’ve seen are indeed exciting, this approach to treating cancer is far from being declared ‘curative,’” said Sekeres.

“Killing Cancer” aired on Friday, Feb. 27, as part of the Emmy-winning Vice series on HBO. The report was a kickoff to Vice’s third season, which begins tonight.

Vice is an independent news organization that partners with HBO to air its report. The program takes an in-depth look at a variety of topics ranging from war to the environment to bachelors in China in each of its weekly episodes.

On the Feb. 27 special report, host Shane Smith and his crew focused on cancer treatments that involve injecting genetically modified viruses into cancer patients.

The intent is to have the viruses stimulate a patient’s immune system so that it attacks cancer cells and leaves the rest of their body alone.

Smith visited three hospitals in Canada, Texas, and Pennsylvania, as well as the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. In each case, a person with cancer and their unique treatment was profiled.

A father at the Mayo Clinic was injected with the measles virus to beat back his myeloma. A man in Texas with a brain tumor was injected with a cold virus.

A young girl in Pennsylvania got modified HIV to tackle her leukemia. Another woman was given an altered measles vaccine to attack her cancer cells.

In each case, the cancer went into remission.

Shane was unable to conduct an interview with Healthline on Thursday or Friday due to the new season premiere. However, Smith’s message at the beginning and the end of the 42-minute special report is pretty clear.

He calls the treatments “revolutionary” and “groundbreaking.” At the beginning of the program, he says, “We might be on the verge of curing cancer.”

Near the end, he expresses a similar sentiment after the segment on Emily Whitehead, the young girl in Pennsylvania who has now been cancer free for more than two years.

“I realized we were no longer talking about a treatment, we were actually talking about a cure,” Smith says.

He adds the immune-based treatments could be “the biggest thing in cancer treatment since chemo and radiation.”

Smith is backed up by Dr. Carl June, the Pennsylvania specialist who treated the young girl. He calls the immune-based treatments a “paradigm shift.”

June has used the T-cell therapy on 39 children and 90 percent are in complete remission from their cancer.

Smith and the medical experts in the show do caution that these treatments are still in the clinical trial stages. June predicts the T-cell treatment could be available next year.

Phelps, who oversees the Preclinical and Translational Cancer Research program in the Extramural Grants department of the American Cancer Society, said some of the diseases in the Vice report were “liquid cancers” such as leukemia.

Those are easier to treat than more “physical cancers” such as lung, breast, or colon cancer.

Phelps said the individual stories in the program are remarkable and heart-warming. But he cautioned these are a few dozen cases, not the tens of thousands of patients with more than 300 different types of cancer diagnosed in the United States each year.

“We’ve seen cures of individuals, but it remains to be seen if we are actually curing cancer,” said Phelps. “Cancer is a crafty disease and finds ways to get around our treatments.”

Sekeres of Cleveland Clinic agrees. He says cancer is complicated. Patients with certain types of bone marrow cancers, for example, can develop 10 distinct genetic mutations.

“By necessity, advances in cancer therapy will require multiple approaches that include vaccine therapy, immunotherapy, and traditional chemotherapy to eradicate those mutations and affect higher cure rates,” he said.

Nonetheless, Phelps said if all goes well, the treatments on the Vice program could be widely used in three years or so.

Phelps said the program could be beneficial in helping raise funds for cancer research. However, he is concerned cancer patients might become overly optimistic. He also worries people will flood the medical facilities where clinical trials are being held. Those places would only be able to accept a handful of those patients.

Sekeres has similar concerns.

“I just hope that such programs aren’t raising false expectations about the rapidity with which we will be able to finally cure cancer,” he said.