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AZ escapes censure over cancer tweet

Firm did not breach UK’s Code of Practice over survival statistics post

AZ HQ 

AstraZeneca has been cleared by the UK industry ethics body the PMCPA over a tweet it published about the chances of breast cancer getting worse for newly diagnosed patients.

This comes after an anonymous director of research, based in the US, complained about a tweet posted by AstraZeneca in December last year from the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

The published tweet said: “Approximately 30% of women with early breast cancer will develop advanced or metastatic breast cancer”.

The director, who is also medical professional with a UK licence, said he understood that survival rates were in fact above 98% for early breast cancer.

The complainant queried the evidence upon which the tweeted statement was made, as well as the target audience (as anyone can read these tweets), and also whether AZ had considered the negative effect that the tweet could have on a woman recently diagnosed with early breast cancer. 

The director noted that AstraZeneca had cited O'Shaughnessy (2005) on a fact sheet in support of the statement - however he argued that the figure of 30% was an “unreferenced comment from the author and not based on any data”.

Despite contacting the company several times, the director said he had not received a formal reply, and that the tweet was still posted on the company's Twitter page on 9 January, 2015.

The PMCPA Panel, which polices the ABPI's Code of Practice in the UK, noted that the tweet was sent from AstraZeneca's global Twitter account and that because its global headquarters was based in the UK, the Twitter account had to comply with the UK Code.

The Panel said that this was a “difficult situation” as precisely quantifying the percentage of women diagnosed with early breast cancer who would then go on, perhaps many years later, to develop metastatic breast cancer was “extremely difficult”.

Nonetheless, it was important that health professionals and patients with early breast cancer knew of the possibility of metastatic disease developing and any figure so used must reflect the requirements of the Code and be capable of substantiation. 

The Panel noted the limitations of the data and that the complainant bore the burden of proof.  Whilst it might have been helpful to provide more information about the data, on balance the Panel considered that given the difficulty in determining a precise figure, the reference to “approximately 30% of women” in the tweet was not unreasonable - therefore, no breach of the Code was ruled. 

The complainant had also asked that the complaint be considered on the basis of the lack of response from AstraZeneca. The Panel noted that AstraZeneca had responded, albeit not within the time frame specified by the complainant. Not replying within a set time was not however covered by the Code, so it could not be found in breach.

This case does not highlight the pitfalls of social media so much as it does about the fact of the use of statistics.

There remains however questions over the issue of communication from AZ, and whether they should have responded to the query via Twitter more quickly, instead of the director taking the case to the PMCPA.

AZ currently markets Faslodex (fulvestrant) for certain breast cancer patients, and also has a growing portfolio of medicines for the conditions in its research pipeline.

 

Article by
Ben Adams

26th May 2015

From: Regulatory

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