Drama and diagnosis on soap opera set troubles cancer doctors, puts Incyte in hot seat

Actress Finola Hughes plays Anna Devane, a General Hospital character diagnosed with polycythemia vera as part of an Incyte disease awareness campaign.

Soap operas often include medical mysteries and miracles, but a couple of real-life doctors are concerned about Incyte's connection to the latest drama on General Hospital.

Writing in JAMA, oncologists Sham Mailankody and Vinay Prasad question the ABC soap opera's rare-disease plot enabled by a partnership with the biopharma company Incyte. In the General Hospital storyline begun in February, leading character Anna Devane is diagnosed with a rare blood cancer called polycythemia vera (PV). The show doctors explain to the character, who is played by Incyte spokesperson Finola Hughes, that PV is part of a group of rare blood cancers called myeloproliferative neoplasms, and that there are treatments, but no cure.

Want to guess which pharma makes the only FDA-approved drug that can be used in treatment of the disease? (It’s Incyte.) There are also other ways to treat the disease, including blood thinners and phlebotomy.

While Incyte’s drug, Jakafi, is never mentioned during the show, the real-life cancer doctors still questioned the appropriateness of a disease awareness campaign for a condition that only has one approved drug treatment. They wrote that the “novel form of disease awareness promotion, through a daytime soap opera, raised questions about the role and regulation of this form of marketing.”

The four questions Mailankody and Prasad raise about disease awareness, sparked by this promotion, are: is it drug marketing in disguise, does it promote specific drug sales, does it have benefits, and could it lead to overdiagnosis?

Incyte announced the collaboration in February on Rare Disease Day with Hughes doing rounds of publicity at the time to raise awareness of the disease. But it was the recently penned JAMA paper that resulted in a backlash. A Vox article that includes an interview with Prasad reported that General Hospital “takes disease awareness campaigning to absurd new heights,” while Business Insider asserts “Incyte’s relationship with ‘General Hospital’ seems to flirt with outright drug promotion,” citing the cancer doctors’ JAMA article. Incyte did not reply to FiercePharma's questions about the partnership.

Incyte is a Wilmington, DE-based biotech that’s been in the news more often over the past few months for its plethora of immuno-oncology partnerships. Incyte is working with Merck, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Roche and AstraZeneca on cancer combinations and trials that pair its IDO1 inhibitor, epacadostat, with their PD-1/PD-L1 meds.

Of course, in true soap opera fashion, all is not what it seems on General Hospital, even in the PV diagnosis of the fictional Anna. General Hospital fans just found out that the real Anna was being held hostage elsewhere, and the woman who was diagnosed with PV is really her twin sister, Alex. Tune in next week to find out where the real Anna is, which sister is actually sick, and if the FDA does anything about the JAMA docs’ complaints.