Many serious health journalists struggle with how to handle research stories in animals. Last night, KSTP-TV in MInneapolis-St. Paul presented a story that showed little attempt to put mouse research findings into a meaningful context.
It was on Rett Syndrome, which KSTP reported was “a disorder similar to autism.” They said, “Doctors, who are testing mice, were able to reverse the symptoms of Rett Syndrome, an advancement beyond what many had even hoped for. … The discovery is so monumental because it could lead not only to a cure for Rett Syndrome, but it could also help doctors working to cure autism. This is still in the research stage, a cure is at least ten years out. In the meantime, the Evert family and thousands of others are excited about a Rett Syndrome clinic set to open at Gillett (sic) Childrens’ Hospital in Saint Paul.”
First, the finding is not new; it is more than a month old.
Second, the story made little of the leap required from mice to humans. How can one even discuss “cure” with something that has not yet been tried in humans? How good an animal model is the mouse for this syndrome? What are the hurdles that lie ahead? We heard none of this. Yet we heard “cure” three times within seconds.
Finally, the story seemed to fall prey to a news release from a local hospital creating a clinic for Rett Syndrome patients, without any regard for the fact that such patients may receive specialized treatment at other area hospitals as well.
But, as evidenced from a listing of stories on the research on the Rett Syndrome Research Foundation website, KSTP was not alone. Many other news organizations used the word “cure” in describing this perhaps promising but certainly preliminary finding.
I would not dissuade people from finding hope wherever they choose to invest it. But I would dissuade journalists from promoting what may be false hope laden with more emotion than evidence.