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Important omissions in heart & cancer stories

Very preliminary findings from stem cell research got a lot of news coverage this week. Probably because there were local researchers involved, the Star Tribune put the story on the front page of Monday’s paper. They reported:

An experimental treatment using adult stem cells was able to limit heart damage and improve the quality of life of patients suffering their first heart attack, according to a study of patients in Minneapolis and several other cities.

First, I balk at calling an experiment a treatment. It’s an experiment. Health lawyers have a term for this: “therapeutic misconception.” That means leading people to think there’s a certain therapeutic benefit from what is really an unknown undergoing experimentation.

The Star Tribune quoted four sources – which is usually good. But all four were connected with the research in some way, with a vested interest in reporting positive findings.

Especially since the work had only been presented at a scientific conference, which means that it had not yet been peer-reviewed, the story should have included independent perspectives.

Remember, questions have been raised about other stem cell research at the UMN – questions that are likely to come to the fore after peer review.

And ABC News recently reported on the drug Tykerb for metastatic breast cancer. But the story failed to mention that the drug is approved only for use with another drug (Xeloda) and that the combined cost of the drugs is $4,400 per month. It also failed to discuss potential harms of the two drugs.

It is hard to understand why/how such key components are so consistently left out of health news stories.

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