If you skim too quickly, you’ll miss that this “breakthrough” in type 2 diabetes research came from a study of mice — not humans. The story may have overstated the promise of bench research.
This story describes the discovery of a hormone, called betatrophin, that can cause mice to produce more of the cells that secrete insulin. The “mice” part is important, but the story didn’t address it or explore its implications in a satisfactory way. Instead, it focused mainly on speculation that the discovery would lead to a treatment that can manage diabetes more effectively or even prevent it from developing in the first place. The lone note of caution is relegated to the very end of the story, where few readers are likely to see it.
Scientists are much better at curing diseases in mice than they are in humans. That’s why it’s very important to state upfront — preferably in the headline or first sentence — when research being reported on involves animals and not people. We don’t think you should tout something as a “breakthrough” without qualifying immediately that it has never been tested in a human being.
Not applicable. This research is so preliminary that there’s no telling what any treatment resulting from it might cost.
Since the study was conducted in mice, we’ll forgive the story for not providing a careful accounting of what the researchers observed; these statistics just aren’t relevant to people. But we have other concerns, most important of which is how the story frames the benefits that any treatment derived from this research might confer. The story suggests that in patients with type 2 diabetes, the hypothetical new treatment might replace “keeping track of blood sugar levels with regular finger pricks and repeated insulin shots.” But the story never explains that the majority of patients with type 2 diabetes manage their condition with oral medications, not these “tedious injections.” Would the benefits apply to them or only to those who need insulin?
It may be more likely this hormone would simply lead to a better understanding of the complex relationships between food and the hormonal milieu related to carbohydrate metabolism, rather than a cure for type II diabetes. There was a similar hope for leptin as a cure for obesity a decade ago.
The story speculates extensively about the many benefits a treatment based on this preliminary research might confer. So we think it’s only fair that the story at least mention the possibility that a new treatment might also cause harm. The researcher quoted in the story suggests that “anything that lowers blood sugar can make you healthier.” Besides the obvious exception of hypoglycemia (which can be fatal), recent experience with Avandia confirms that drugs which lower blood sugar can sometimes have other undesirable effects.
The story is misleading. It touts a “new treatment” in the headline and calls the research a “breakthrough in helping the body to produce more insulin” in the first sentence. It’s not until the fourth paragraph that we learn the bodies were mice. That’s too long to wait to mention such an enormous limitation. And while the story does include the restraining voice of an American Diabetes Association expert, his comment doesn’t appear until the second-to-last paragraph – long after the story has explored a variety of hypothetical scenarios that lead to approval of an effective new treatment. Remember, these are mice we’re talking about! It’s not at all clear how this hormone will behave in humans.
The story’s emphasis on doing away with “tedious [insulin] injections” is questionable, as most type 2 diabetes patients don’t require insulin. But since we’ve already addressed this problem elsewhere, we won’t dock any points here.
The story features a useful comment from an American Diabetes Association expert (though we wonder how many people will read far enough down the story to see it). Unfortunately, the story didn’t mention that the authors of the study already have agreements in place to commercialize their research. Here’s how a press release about the study described these relationships: “Working with Harvard’s Office of Technology Development, Melton and Yi already have a collaborative agreement with Evotec, a German biotech firm that now has 15 scientists working on betatrophin, and the compound has been licensed to Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a Johnson & Johnson company that now, too, has scientists working to move betatrophin toward the clinic.”
There are a number of oral medications that can help make up for lagging insulin production, either by stimulating beta cells to produce more insulin or making tissues more sensitive to the insulin that is being produced. The story didn’t mention any of these.
It’s clear that any possible treatment resulting from this research is still a long way away.
The research being reported on does seem to be a genuinely new discovery.
The story doesn’t seem to have relied excessively on this press release about the study.