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Invasive weed kills superbugs? All we know is it might work in mice

Rating

2 Star

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Common weed could help fight deadly superbug, study finds

Our Review Summary

This Washington Post story summarizes the findings from a recently published study looking at whether the Brazilian peppertree plant might contain important antimicrobial properties.

The research, which also was given a large write-up in The New York Times last year, is a tantalizing topic, given that “superbugs” are on the rise. Coverage of these bugs may make people receptive to the idea of a “super cure.” But as exciting as it is, the research is still in pre-clinical stages, with mice serving as the study subjects. This story didn’t emphasize that point enough.   

 

Why This Matters

As we’ve stressed many times, preliminary rodent research rarely (if ever) rises to the occasion of big health news. We generally recommend putting these studies away and waiting until more conclusive human research comes along. But, if there’s no way around it, we recommend following this model for how to do it more accurately.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story didn’t discuss costs. But if’s not too early to state that the plant extracts “could help fight deadly superbug,” then it’s not too early to discuss costs of said extracts.

Less savvy readers may think that treatment with this plant involves crushing up some berries and putting them on your skin rash, a very inexpensive process. However, more thorough reporting would have said something about the need for complex and expensive clinical trials, which would drive up the price of any final drug.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story discussed benefits only in general terms. Given that the research was on mice, there’s no way to determine whether the intervention would have any benefit at all to people, let alone to determine the scope of the likely benefit. The story should have emphasized this more.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Satisfactory

The story explains that “the plant extracts didn’t harm the skin tissues or the normal, healthy bacteria found on skin.” It also wisely cautioned “the average person shouldn’t try to use the weed to make their own medicine.”

We’ll award a satisfactory grade but note that the disclaimer could have been stronger, saying that the injections were prepared under laboratory conditions and could not be prepared by just crushing the berries. We also don’t know how the extract might affect humans.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story explained that this study was done in mice. But it should have gone a step further and explicitly stated that mouse research is pre-clinical, and preliminary, and that we’re far from knowing if this will ever become a drug. There may be many very important differences between mice and humans that would affect or prevent the use of this drug in humans.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story discusses prevalence of superbugs, which are indeed a growing public health problem. “MRSA has become a serious threat to human health; in 2011, it was responsible for more than 80,000 invasive infections and more than 11,000 deaths in the United States, according to federal statistics.”

While that’s accurate, it may overstate the danger to some extent. Many of the people who died were terminally ill and would have died regardless of the type of infection.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The story had no independent sources, and it didn’t disclose that the researcher interviewed in the story has a provisional patent on the application of these extracts.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The alternatives are antibiotics and other infection-fighting drugs, and the story discusses how those have become less effective in recent years.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story makes it clear that the product isn’t available yet:

“Her lab at Emory is doing additional research to confirm the safest and most effective way of using the plant extract. Researchers would still need to conduct pre-clinical trials to test its medicinal benefits.”

As we noted above, the story also could have mentioned the need for expensive follow-up studies involving many patients, should those pre-clinical studies produce positive results.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story did not establish the novelty of this finding. (This topic was given a lengthy look in the New York Times Magazine last year, indicating this isn’t a particularly new result.)

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Not Satisfactory

There appear to be a few original quotes in the Post story, not found in the news release. But story doesn’t provide much beyond the information that’s in the news release, and in fact has verbatim quotes from the lead researcher–which aren’t attributed as coming from the news release. Example:

This passage from the news release:

“But instead of always setting a bomb off to kill an infection, there are situations where using an anti-virulence method may be just as effective, while also helping to restore balance to the health of a patient.”

also appears in the Post story:

“But instead of always setting a bomb off to kill an infection, there are situations where using an anti-virulence method may be just as effective, while also helping to restore balance to the health of the patient,” said Quave.

Total Score: 4 of 10 Satisfactory

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