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nna Devane has survived assassination plots, severe frostbite, and a boat explosion that left her with amnesia. Now, resigned to a hospital bed with inexplicable fatigue, she’s facing perhaps her most fearsome adversary.

“There’s no easy way to put this, Anna,” said Dr. Griffin Munro, a former Catholic priest who is also the out-of-wedlock son of Devane’s mob-connected ex-husband. “You have cancer.”

Devane is a soap opera character, as you might have guessed, appearing for the last 32 years on “General Hospital.” And her dramatic diagnosis is brought to you by Incyte Corp., a biotech company that happens to market a drug for her on-screen disease, the rare blood disorder polycythemia vera.

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The scene, which aired in February, is a novel twist on what’s called unbranded advertising, in which drug companies detail the symptoms of a disease but refrain from mentioning the names of any drugs.

As with all commercial advertising, the basic idea is to sell a product, but unbranded ads take an indirect approach. Instead of extolling the virtues of a particular drug — which would require reading off a plodding list of side effects — companies are betting that so-called disease-awareness ads will push patients to visit a doctor and end up with a prescription for their product.

Over the past year, Mylan has used unbranded ads to clandestinely promote its EpiPen injection, and the likes of Novartis, Merck, and AstraZeneca have sponsored similar spots.

But Incyte’s relationship with “General Hospital” seems to flirt with outright drug promotion, according to a pair of cancer experts.

That’s because Devane, upon hearing about the standard treatment for her disease, tells her doctor-cum-son-in-law that it sounds like he’s “treating the symptoms of this cancer; how do we beat it?” As it happens, Incyte’s product is approved only for polycythemia vera patients who don’t get results from the generic drugs of which Devane is skeptical. That makes her protestation sound like “a subtle promotion” for Incyte, Dr. Vinay Prasad and Sham Mailankody write in a Journal of the American Medical Association editorial published today.

More worrying to Prasad and Mailankody is the potential for medical error. Polycythemia vera is rare, affecting fewer than 2 of every 100,000 people, and broadcasting its relatively vague symptoms to an unsophisticated audience could lead to over-diagnosis, the authors write.

Incyte didn’t respond to emailed questions about the “General Hospital” partnership, including how much it paid to get the scene on the air.

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Incyte’s move to bake a disease-awareness campaign into a TV show looks to be an industry first, according to John Kamp, executive director of the Coalition for Healthcare Communication, a trade group for pharmaceutical marketing companies. And he thinks it’s a clever way to educate the public about a serious disease.

“The viewers of ‘General Hospital’ are a pretty important audience for information like this,” Kamp said, noting that caregivers tend to be home for daytime TV’s broadcast hours. “I’ve got to say, it’s aggressive, but it’s smart.”

Of course, that assumes Incyte’s target audience doesn’t confuse the reality of polycythemia vera with the twists and turns of life in a soap opera. Just last week, “General Hospital” revealed that the real Devane is in fact being held hostage in London. The woman who learned about the rare blood disease before an audience of millions was in fact her twin sister, Alex.

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  • Just correcting a few character background points, the doctor who diagnosed her was not in fact her son in law but the son of her ex-fiance Duke. While it does appear that her twin Alex has swapped lives with her, that took place after Anna was diagnosed with this rare blood disease making Anna the carrier. Not crucial information in the grand scheme of the article, but I thought I would note it for fact checking sake. Interesting article! I enjoyed reading the findings!

    • I laughed out loud that they decided to include details without doing the research or asking someone in the know. Alex wasn’t on the scene then and the son in law thing was hilarious. Kind of ruined an otherwise good article for me with sloppy research…

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