Hair loss treatment data in 3 people gets widespread (and often weak) news coverage

Published results in just 3 people drew widespread international news attention.

NBC News, which has a history of baldness treatment hype, did it again, putting a graphic behind anchor Brian Williams that played question mark journalism, asking, “Cure for Baldness?”  Short answer:  No.  Not yet.  Not after good results in 3 people.  But NBC had to do more with it.  Anchorman Williams joked about “a blatant bit of type-casting on our part” because their story was reported by hair-challenged Harry Smith, who ended his piece laughing about “those of us who long ago stopped dreaming about a head full of hair.”

But it’s not a laughing matter when Smith reported that the Columbia researchers “look to be on their way to curing hair loss.”  What expertise does Smith have to make that projection?  For people who have alopecia areata, the condition in question, this is serious stuff.

The online NBC News story at least reported about the drug in question: “a one-month supply costs more than $9,000″ and “can cause anemia.”

The New York Times also gave the tiny study big play – on page A9. At least the Times explained that the research was done in people with “alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease afflicting about 1 percent of men and women, causing hair to fall out, often all over the body. … The disease differs from other types of hair loss, including male pattern baldness, and there is no evidence the drug will work for those conditions. Experts caution that even for alopecia areata, it is too early to know if the treatment will work for most patients and if there are significant side effects or safety concerns.”

However, the Times was too vague about the numbers.  It explained that the drug ruxolitinib had been tested on seven women and five men.  But then it vaguely reported:

  • “The results for Brian and several other participants have been significant.”   (Our questions: How many is several?  What does significant mean? Only the one patient’s – Brian’s – experience is detailed.)
  • It helpfully explained that “so far a few participants did not regrow hair.”  (Our question:  How many of the 12?)
  • It helpfully reported a quote from one of the researchers:  “It appears to work — not in everyone, but in the majority,” she said. “We need a lot more data on the long-term risks in healthy individuals.”

The Times story did not explain that the Nature Medicine journal article only reported results in the first three people tested.  So any reference to anything happening in most of the “seven women and five men” refers to unpublished data.  The story should have emphasized that.  For example, did the independent doctors they interviewed review only the published data, or something more?

The Times interviewed one doctor who said “the results were encouraging enough that he would consider prescribing ruxolitinib to patients who could not be treated with other methods and who understood potential side effects. But the Times also interviewed a dermatologist who cautioned that the study participants were:

…“treated systemically with a very toxic drug” that can cause liver and blood problems, infections and other ailments.

Although the patients have experienced few side effects, the study is small and not a randomized trial comparing ruxolitinib to other treatments.

HealthDay published one of the weaker stories we saw.  They didn’t interview the researchers, but lifted a quote from a Columbia University Medical Center news release:

“We’ve only begun testing the drug in patients, but if the drug continues to be successful and safe, it will have a dramatic positive impact on the lives of people with this disease,” study leader Dr. Raphael Clynes said in a Columbia news release.

Time.com didn’t mention side effects or costs, but stated that “the findings will be a great relief to sufferers.”  Really?  Or maybe the story should explain why it’s too early to make that leap.

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