There are subtle differences between this story and a competing story by WebMD about the same research study on nanotechnology treatments for multiple sclerosis. But the differences are important. While WebMD took a more cautious tone from the top, this story puts too much weight on this one mouse study, promising not only new treatments for multiple sclerosis but also for “a range of so-called autoimmune diseases, from type-1 diabetes to psoriasis, and perhaps even food allergies.”
The gulf between treatments working in animal studies and treatments working in humans without significant – even fatal – side effects is wide. Journalists need to temper the natural enthusiasm for new treatments with that in mind.
The story quotes 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 second paragraph of the story says, “So far it’s only worked in mice, but it has worked especially well. And while mice are different from humans in many ways, their immune systems are quite similar.” So one expects to see some proof later in the story. Nowhere in the story, though, do we find out how many mice were studied let alone how many benefited from the treatments.
We were also struck by the notion that the mouse immune system is “quite similar” to that of humans expressed in the story. While the mouse model is used routinely for immunologic studies, most experts in the field suggest a hefty amount of caution in over interpreting results in the mouse model. A recent article in the Journal of Immunology entitled, “Of Mice and Not Men:Differences between Mouse and Human Immunology” highlights the differences including those in MS immunology studies. Regardless of the number of animals studied, the results of a trial in the mouse model tells you a lot about the intervention in mice and a little about the possible value of the intervention in humans.
The story does not explore potential harms, which is too bad. As the story points out, mice do have much shorter life spans than humans, and if humans have to be on this type of therapy for the long-term there are many potential risks involved.
The story does an excellent job describing the science involved. The descriptions of the different phases of the research and the attempts to perfect this approach are clearly laid out. The story does mention enough times that the research is being conducted in mice and that human trials are years away, but we think it should have steered clear of some of the broader statements about the treatment’s applicability. Like this paragraph:
What’s great about the approach, Miller says, is that it can be used to treat any autoimmune disease. For diabetes, little bits of pancreatic beta cells could be attached to the nanoparticles. For a food allergy, the part of the food that causes the allergic response could be attached. “You can try to induce tolerance to peanuts or eggs or shellfish or whatever you are allergic to,” he said.
There is no disease mongering in the story.
There are no independent sources in the story, and all the sources provide an overly optimistic view of the future for this research.
The story does mention other treatments, but mainly in the context of them being inferior. As noted above, the story skirts side effects from nanotechnology but does say that existing treatments “can leave patients vulnerable to infections and cancer.” What might we not yet know about nanotechnology?
The story makes it clear that the treatment is not currently available.
As with a competing story in WebMD, the story makes it appear as if this is the first time this approach has been used but does not cast a wide enough net in terms of research or independent sourcing to make that case definitively.
The story does not rely on a press release.