The silenced hype machine on gene-regulating skin treatments appears to be revving up again.
This story does a good job explaining the complicated mechanisms of the cellular components involved in this new study, but you would have to be a very well versed student of the scientific literature to not be caught up in the hype echoing throughout this story. The technique described in the study has only shown any efficacy in mice and on preserved skin cells in a laboratory. Clinical trials may be years away, assuming the research even gets that far. Yet the headline says it’s “close.”
There’s an editorial dissonance in throwing a story like this onto a website that, at the same time, features health stories of immediate human impact. For example:
We support and encourage more science stories. But throwing them in among consumer health stories can be confusing, lending a sense of immediate applicability that is not warranted. This particular MSNBC website is labeled: “Get the critical news and views to keep yours healthy, sharp — and safe.” This story doesn’t fit that tagline at all at this point.
As the story notes, we have been down this road before. “Ten years ago, scientists predicted a new era of siRNA therapies, but the hype machine ran into a roadblock: how to deliver siRNAs into cells and make them regulate the target gene and not cause any collateral damage.” This story makes it seem as if all of those roadblocks have been cleared, and it goes well beyond the research findings, which are related to skin cancer, to foretell a future where psoriasis, diabetic sores, and even aging skin meet their match with this new super lotion. We wish more stories would explain complex science in such easy to understand terms, but that doesn’t make up for the cheerleading for a technique that is far from proven.
The research is too preliminary for there to be a meaningful discussion of costs.
In a sense, the benefits are quantified, but they are quantified in such a way to lead readers to believe that this new skin lotion can stop melanoma in its tracks. In fact, the research only shows an effect on one aspect of melanoma growth. High in the story it says that the technique of delivering this drug in a lotion “might also prove to be a valuable weapon in fighting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer”. Then the story explains that, “In their key experiment in mice, they used their new system to tamp down the activity of a gene called epidermal growth factor receptor, or EGFR, that’s involved in the growth of melanoma. As its name implies, EGFR receives messages from the epidermal growth factor protein. So toning down EGFR will interrupt the message; growth will be reduced or stop. After mice were treated with the mixture three times per week for three weeks, the expression of the EGFR gene was reduced by 65 percent.”
But what does a 65% reduction in expression of the gene in mice mean? And was this effect seen in all mice? Was this an average reduction? What variability in response was there? How many mice? The questions outnumber the answers provided.
The story hints that there may be negative effects from the nanotechnology involved in this study, but it never explains what those effects might be. It says, “For example, the Food and Drug Administration has yet to rule on the use of nanoparticles in sunscreens until more data can be gathered on what effects, if any, the particles might have if they pass through skin and enter the bloodstream. Last week, the agency announced that the tiny technology needs more safety testing before it can be used in consumer goods.” At a minimum, the story should have given a better sense of the unknowns still at play here. Despite many years of hype about nanotechnology, we are at the very beginning stages of developing drugs that could be effectively and safely delivered in the ways described in this story. What we do know is that when you start manipulating cells you can have many unintended consequences that could quickly become worse than the problem you were trying to fix.
This was a tough call. Much of the context that readers would need to understand the limitations of this study can be found in the story. But only someone with a strong scientific background or someone who is fluent in the scientiific literature would know what to look for. And the omissions in the story are overshadowed by an attempt to put everything in the most glowing terms, such as:
There is no disease mongering in the story.
Most of the story’s content seems to come from the perspective of the lead researcher, Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology and the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry at Northwestern.” He is overly enthusiastic, given the early nature of the research, calling the lotion technology a “blockbuster” in the fourth paragraph. We give the story credit for seeking out an independent source. Steve Dowdy, a professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California San Diego, shares some of the enthusiasm expressed in the story but strikes the only cautious notes found in the story, too. We also give the story credit for showing how the lead researcher in the study is hoping to make a bundle of this technology, even though the framing around that fact is used mainly to underscore the legitimacy of the study’s findings. The story syas, “But Dowdy did agree that for use on skin — especially in cases like psoriasis or diabetic wounds where the skin surface has already been compromised, Mirkin’s group may be onto something. Mirkin certainly hopes so. He’s founded a company called Aurasense Therapeutics. Just as Botox was originally meant to be used for muscle disorders, but now makes heaps of money thanks to its wrinkle-fighting properties, Aurasense stands to reap a windfall if anybody can walk up to a counter and buy a lotion or cream that really will reduce the signs of aging.”
There is no comparison of how this study stacks up against previous studies that have hit roadblocks in the past or how this perceived benefit in reducing the expression of a certain gene compares to other treatments for melanoma or, for that matter, sunscreen to prevent cancer cells from forming in the first place.
The story talks about the study being in mice and cells in the lab. It also says, “So far no solution has been perfect, though siRNA technology is being tested in human clinical trials.” But the headline says “Researchers say they’re close.” What does close mean? Months? Years? A decade? (Since the story appropriately notes the “hype machine” of siRNA therapies ten years ago – a decade may be a reasonable time frame.) Is that close?
The story does not back up the claims that this is “a blockbuster in the ways we will treat diseases of the skin.” It mentions past scientific failures and tries to explain how this attempt to deliver nanoparticles through the skin is different, but then it also says that similar technology is now in human clinical trials. Perhaps comments about both efficacy and novelty should be reserved until this work advances out of the mouse stage.
The story does not rely on a press release.