Study Finds Websites That Market Personalized Cancer Care Services Overemphasize Benefits

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Stacy W. Gray, MD, AM

A recent analysis of 55 Internet websites marketing a broad range of tests and services that promise the ability to personalize cancer treatment has found that the websites often overemphasize their purported benefits and downplay their limitations. In addition, the study results show that the majority of companies that market somatic tests online promote tests that do not have evidence of clinical utility. The study by Stacy W. Gray, MD, AM, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and colleagues, is published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.1

Study Methodology

The researchers screened the top 30 websites on Google, Yahoo, and Bing, using 54 search items related to personalized or genomic cancer care, as well as websites identified through a literature review and an abstraction of exhibitor information from a national oncology conference. A Delphi Panel categorized Personalized Cancer Medicine as standard or nonstandard based on evidence of clinical utility. To capture websites that market cancer-related germline testing, genomic interpretative services, and providers who advertise personalized care, the researchers defined Personalized Cancer Medicine as products or services that could be used to tailor, personalize, or individualize care based on genomic or tumor-derived data.

While the majority of websites were sponsored by commercial entities (56%), others were sponsored by academic institutions (20%), private institutions (15%), and individual physicians (2%). Thirty-one percent of the websites offered multiple Personalized Cancer Medicine services; 58% offered somatic analysis, and 20% offered germline analysis. In addition, 44% of the sites offered some form of personalized cancer care, and 15% offered interpretive services. About half of the commercial websites included the cost of testing, which ranged from $99 to $13,000.

Study Findings

The researchers’ analysis found that the vast majority (87%) of all websites included benefit information, and just 27% included limitation information. Websites included more information on the benefits of personalized cancer medicine than the limitations of personalized cancer medicine (P < .001). Compared with noncommercial websites, commercial websites were more likely to provide information on the benefits of personalized cancer medicine (100% vs 67%, P < .001).

In addition, the analysis showed that the majority of companies that market somatic tests online promote tests that do not have evidence of clinical utility. According to the study abstract, six websites offered chemotherapy sensitivity testing despite the fact that technology assessments from ASCO show insufficient evidence to recommend the tests.

Currently, claims and other information posted on websites are not subject to regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Federal Trade Commission, although the FDA has said it intends to begin regulating genomic testing more broadly.

“Given the lack of uniform regulation over Internet marketing, disproportionate claims of benefit, and promotion of nonstandard technologies, it is essential that clinicians and patients critically evaluate online products,” concluded the researchers. ■

Disclosure: The study was supported by grants from the American Cancer Society and the National Institutes of Health. The study authors reported no conflicts of interest.


1. Gray SW, Cronin A, Bair E, et al: Marketing of personalized cancer care on the Web: An analysis of Internet websites. J Natl Cancer Inst 107(5):djv030, 2015.