Tallying up risks and benefits would have helped this otherwise informative story about nanotechnology.
Early research into using nanotechnology to treat multiple sclerosis in a mouse model is presented as just that: early research into a difficult-to-treat disease with some interesting results. If you are not paying close attention, though, you might assume that the research is closer to an effective treatment than it actually is. This is because the risks, benefits or even the number of mice treated in this study are never actually quantified. Nor are the risks associated with this type of treatment adequately addressed.
Building immune system tolerance to antigens is certainly not a new concept and has been around for decades. What is new is this twenty first century approach using microparticles of biocompatible materials linked to an antigen to suppress the immune response to myelin. Myelin acts as an insulator for nerve transmission and is the unfortunate target of the immune system in multiple sclerosis. Nanotechnology has been a buzzword for some time in medical circles, and there are good reasons for researchers to buzz. The job of journalists is to help readers understand whether such enthusiasm is warranted in specific cases, like multiple sclerosis. Here, the story makes it clear that we are at least two years away from even seeing clinical trials in humans for this type of treatment. We wish that the story had drawn a strong line between animal research and human research and provided some sense of the nanotechnology approaches that have been tried and failed to show significant benefits in humans up to this point.
The story could have done what the competing MSNBC story reported:
MSNBC quoted a researcher saying that one stage of the research…”was hideously expensive.” … “It cost probably about a million dollars to treat 10 patients using live cells,” he said.
The story makes some bold claims about the effects of nanoparticles in mice, and it alludes to similar research in humans. But it does not quantify any of the actual findings. We found the comments on the ongoing and unpublished Phase 1 trial using white blood cells were misleading without the acknowledgement of their preliminary nature.
Unfortunately, the story bounces from an older approach, using white blood cells, to the use of microparticles. So, it is easy to get the wrong impression of results. Harms were not addressed in the results of the study using microparticles. Dr. Miller’s quote, “”There [were no side effects], there was no re-triggering of disease, and we actually showed that immune responses in patients were decreased,” were related to the ongoing and unpublished study using white cells as carriers.
The story gets high marks for how it tempers the enthusiasm of the researchers with constant reminders that this is a study conducted in mice. The first sentence says that the study was done in “mice that are bred to have the disease.” And the first quote says, “Will these peptides actually induce tolerance in people? We just don’t know. It’s rational, but we won’t know until we get it into people.” There are good explanations throughout of how the study was conducted. We wish, though, that the story had not blended the findings about research in mice with the findings about research in humans. The earlier research in humans was using whole white blood cells, not synthetic nanoparticles, and so in some ways the findings are irrelevant.
There was no disease mongering here.
The story relies mostly on the two lead researchers on the project, but it does bring in some important context from the chief researcher for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, who provides a cautious tone at the start of the story. It also explains how the study was funded.
The story does not discuss the many alternative approaches under study and in clinical practice spoken to in the journal article itself.
The story makes it clear that this is an experimental treatment being tested in mice and says, perhaps optimistically, that trials in humans would be at least two years away.
The story indicates that this approach in mice has never been tried before, but we aren’t given a sense of the state of nanotechnology more broadly or whether there are similar mice studies being conducted for MS or other diseases.
As we noted earlier, attempts to selectively desensitize the immune system have been around for decades. The use of 21st century technology being applied to this age old approach is new and novel but it does not come across well in the story
The story does not rely on a press release.