Journalistic arrhythmia – hearts aflutter over small stem cell study

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.

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Gregory D. Pawelski

November 15, 2011 at 12:13 pm

Translational medicine is about baby steps, if people didn’t do this stuff, we wouldn’t get anywhere. It all builds on each other, so it’s good that they are doing this. I too, get kind of irritated when huge amounts of hype are made about this in laymen media, because it sends the wrong message to desperate people. It’s good to have hope, of course, but the danger is that there may be corrupt, immoral people out there who exploit that hope.

Jody Schoger

November 15, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Last night I watched the over-the-top ABC coverage. Overemphasis and ratings grabbers like this story (is it sweeps week? Is that why the Gabby Giffords story ran as well?) are part of the health care noise that too many tune out. It would have been better presented as a science story because it WAS and is interesting. And cures? Honestly? This oversimplification of complex processes is killing credibility. It also makes it harder for advocates because so many are (understandably)suspicious.

Robert W. Hooley

February 15, 2012 at 9:45 am

One needs to realize that without the hype and banter that follow medical miracles, the capital and private investors would never hear about the ‘unlimited potential’ for these breakthroughs, albeit somewhat unfounded. It is important to stay grounded – there is still no absolute cure for cancer, even after a half-decade of hype – but there is hope, capital investment, and focus on solving this medical disease every day, simply because of the hype that followed some obvious ‘shady’ research. And these programs are working.

The hype that came from initial stem cell research was that stem cells were a cure-for-all and that ‘diseases were going to be a thing of the past’. While this is not the case, government agencies, public and private capital, investors, and universities have all, worldwide, embraced stem cells as a ‘potential cure’ and are investing heavily. There is a high probability that these investments will return well-done, viable, and useful research/results.

We need this hype to get people excited. Yes, its poor journalistic reporting, hyped exploitation, and bad credibility for both medicines and researchers, but it’s the hype that is needed to get the masses motivated and monies focused on the real research and accomplishments that follow.