Why is it so important to report on mouse research that a news organization is compelled to write the mouse story before a talk is even presented at a scientific conference?
The story conveyed a cheerleading tone throughout, starting with the the story’s opening words – “A noninvasive scan…” Non-invasive is usually an attribute of scanning technologies.
The true leap from mouse research to human application was only hinted at.
Don’t get us wrong: there’s nothing wrong with the topic. It’s the execution of the story that we question.
There’s a reason that Woloshin & Schwartz wrote, “Media Coverage of Scientific Meetings: Too Much, Too Soon?” This is an example.
Certainly an estimate of the cost of the radiotracer and PET scan could have been provided. PET scans are already in use in a number of applications – and their use is not inexpensive
The potential benefit wasn’t quantified – not even for the mice in question.
As with any test, questions about sensitivity and specificity should have been addressed.
The story said nothing about potential harms.
The amount of radiation used in a PET scan is low. It is about the same amount of radiation as in most CT scans. Also, the radiation doesn’t last for very long in your body.
It is possible, although very unlikely, to have an allergic reaction to the radioactive substance. Some people have pain, redness, or swelling at the injection site.
Harms also emerge from false positive and false negative test results – which could lead to unnecessary treatment or undertreatment.
The story reminded readers in several places that this work was only done in mice. So we’ll give the story the benefit of the doubt.
But the story also jumped the gun, reporting on the results even before they were presented at the American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in Chicago.
We remind journalists and readers about the pitfalls of reporting on talks at scientific meetings.
Frankly, we think we’re being generous in giving this a satisfactory score on this criterion.
No disease mongering.
Perhaps the only thing that salvaged the story was the story-ending caveat from an independent expert:
…research from animal-based studies does not always pan out in humans and “further, larger studies are of course required to confirm these findings.”
Existing methods of looking for prostate cancer spread were waved off with a few words – “both methods have their limits.” In readers’ minds, that may automatically set up the newer idea as having the inside track on being better. Yet existing methods – by default – at least have proven track records. Such framing is imbalanced.
Bone scans are actually considered quite sensitive for metastatic disease. The pattern of abnormalities in combination with clinical data is often sufficient to make the diagnosis. The combination of bone scans and PSA already provides considerable information about tumor progression and hormone resistance. Biopsies are usually not necessary in the presence of suspicious bone scan abnormalities. It’s a huge leap to assume that using this test in humans would lead to improved outcomes (the goal of “personalized medicine”).
The story stated that the researchers “hope to begin a human trial next year.”
The relative novelty of the approach was not clearly established. How/why is this better than existing PET scans? Or how is it better (more accurate or useful or cheaper or safer) than using a bone scan and PSA results and clinically assessing the signs and symptoms of progression?
There were two independent experts quoted, but the only quote from the researcher came from a conference news release. That’s not good journalistic practice, and is another sign of the rush to publish – even before the data were presented at the conference.