Journalist Larry Husten, on his Cardiobrief blog, writes, “Hype Aside, Hope for Stem Cell Therapy May Be Emerging From Hibernation.”
It was one of the only notes of caution we saw in our limited sampling of news stories about an analysis of an experimental stem cell intervention in 14 people – only 8 of whom were followed for a year. Husten wrote:
“Two small studies of cardiac stem cells for the treatment of heart failure have shown promise, but ABC News, CBS News and other media outlets are throwing around words like “medical breakthrough” and “heart failure cure.” ABC News correspondent Richard Besser was so enthusiastic that anchor Diane Sawyer commented that she had never seen him “so excited.” The first author of one of the studies, Roberto Bolli, said the work could represent “the biggest advance in cardiology in my lifetime.”
The reality may be somewhat more prosaic.
Here’s the transcript of the video NBC report [2017 update: the video is no longer available].
The story offered no meaningful discussion of the limitations of the research, failed to explain that only 8 of 16 patients had been followed for a year, and offered no independent perspective – offering only one of the researchers saying:
“This is one of the biggest advances in cardiovascular medicine in my lifetime, if not the biggest.”
Let’s look at some of the recurring themes in these stories:
Tyranny of the anecdote
Note that all three TV networks rode the same glowing patient anecdote as that used in a WebMD story we reviewed.
Money quote keeps paying dividends
The same researcher quote – “biggest advance in cardiovascular medicine in my lifetime” – appeared in the ABC and NBC stories.
As we noted in our review of their story, WebMD reported that one researcher they interviewed could barely contain his excitement. As Husten noted above, ABC anchor Diane Sawyer discussed on the air how “excited” correspondent Richard Besser was. Hmm. Is that the job of journalism to convey how excited a reporter is?
Anchor Sawyer also gushed this question to Besser, “Is this the real prospect that the nation’s number one killer could be cured?” He answered, but not with a direct answer to that question. Darn. Once titillated by Sawyer’s query, I was breathlessly awaiting the answer.
CBS used cure and breakthrough in the same headline. At least they added:
“But other experts expressed caution.
“This is positive, but the crucial next steps are to see whether this improvement is confirmed in the final completed trial, and to understand whether the cells are actually replacing damaged heart cells or are secreting molecules that are helping to heal the heart,” Dr. Peter Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation, told the BBC.”
But why did they have to lift a note of caution from what the BBC gathered? Why didn’t they get their own?
The Los Angeles Times blog didn’t challenge one researcher’s crystal ball: “Depending on the Food and Drug Administration’s approach to the new therapy, (the researcher said) a product based on his team’s work could be available to patients as soon as 2015 or 2016.” After analyzing 14 patients?
Our review of the WebMD story concluded:
“The use of cardiac stem cells to repair heart muscle damage is a potentially exciting new development. But it is very early in its development.”
We think that’s about all you can say.