The major story that’s doing the diabetes news circuit at the minute is the cheerful report that suggests that everyone’s favourite long-acting insulin lantus can cause cancer. Thrill seekers can check out Google
Being an avid lantus user (40 units a day at 7.30pm fact fans!) I had a look into these claims – after all I don’t have an overwhelming urge to be sent to an early grave by cancer. I’d much rather diabetes complications did that instead.
So I had a look through the various news reports available online. Interestingly enough – and just as an aside – most of the reports referred to two other studies which compared and I quote “similar databases in Scotland and the UK”. Since 1707 Scotland has been part of the UK, so this sentence is complete nonsense. But why do I bring this up? Friends and family do tell me I delight in being an annoying pedant and while this is certainly true this is not the reason. This rather obvious slip-up appeared in virtually all the published reports – demonstrating that lazy hacks had done a cut-and-paste from one article to the next.
While this is hardly unusual, it does demonstrate the complete lack of objective research or indeed any sort of considered thought that has gone into these news stories before publication.
Anyway, that aside, it appears from our somewhat shaky reporting that of four recent studies into long-term lantus use, one has shown a slight increase in risk of certain cancers among users. The other three haven’t. This, however, was enough to get the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) interested; they concluded that:
The duration of patient follow-up in all four studies was shorter than what is generally considered necessary to evaluate for cancer risk from drug exposure… Further, inconsistencies in findings within and across individual studies raise concerns as to whether an association between the use of insulin glargine [i.e. lantus] and cancer truly exists. Additionally, differences in patient characteristics across the treatment groups may have contributed to a finding of increased cancer risk.
In other words, the tests were too small and too short to show anything of any meaningful significance. Despite the FDA saying this, not one of the newspaper reports considered how the studies were carried out, on whom, by whom, with how many people, whether the final reports were peer reviewed and whether there had been a significant meta-review of the topic. When you stop and think it’s astonishingly easy to pick holes in the entire thing.
So if it was so insignificant, why was this such a big splash? As we all know, the press love cancer scares and love reporting them badly and lazily. A non-specialist reporter with a looming deadline and column inches to fill is never going to give medical reports the time and in-depth consideration they need to be accurate.
So as a result we get ill-considered headlines “X causes cancer” (replace X with something you like or enjoy – red wine, chocolate, cycling, whatever). In fact we could just replace all these headlines with a generic title “Fun causes cancer”. In fact they already have.