(NaturalNews) Experimental cancer drugs harm far more people than they help, according to a study conducted by researchers from Duke University Medical Center and published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
"This sounds a cautionary note," lead researcher Jeffrey Peppercorn said. "In most cases, we should refrain from using experimental drugs outside of clinical trials."
U.S. law allows doctors to prescribe any drug they wish, as long as the FDA has approved it for at least one use. As a consequence, as many as 20 percent of prescriptions in the United States are "off-label" - used on conditions for which they are not approved, or given in doses higher than the FDA has approved.
Since it can take years of clinical testing before a drug is approved for a new use, many doctors simply jump the gun, prescribing experimental drugs for cancer without waiting for studies to be completed.
Yet according to the new study, which reviewed the results of 172 different cancer drug trials, less than a third of the trials involved drugs that improved patient survival and less than half improved any other clinical outcome. Yet two-thirds of all studies produced one or more severe or life-threatening side effects.
In all likelihood, the failure rate of experimental drugs is even greater, the researchers noted, since negative results are less likely to be published.
"Many of these drugs end up not being the tremendous improvement that we hoped they would be," said Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society, who was not involved in the study. "People need to realize that because the trials have not been completed there is a great deal that is not known about the treatments. There are people who get these treatments and get hurt."
Off-label prescribing of experimental drugs may actually slow research into effective cures, the researchers noted, by making it hard to recruit patients into clinical trials. Why sign up for a 50 percent chance of getting a placebo when your doctor can write you a prescription for the same drug?
"[But] almost by definition it hasn't been proved safe and effective," said medical ethicist Steve Joffe.