Some local journalists trumpet breast cancer “breakthrough” that gets little attention elsewhere

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I live in the Twin Cities, so I couldn’t avoid hearing about the University of Minnesota research paper in Nature this week, “APOBEC3B is an enzymatic source of mutation in breast cancer.”  Had I lived anywhere else, I probably wouldn’t have heard anything about it.

This laboratory finding was reported by the CBS TV station, WCCO, as “a big breakthrough in breast cancer.”  As so often happens with TV health news stories reported by someone who doesn’t cover health/medicine fulltime, it is not the taped scripted segment that causes problems.  It is the live chit-chat before and after the taped piece. In that chit-chat, the reporter said:

“We’re talking about real results in a couple of years from now but nonetheless the researchers say this is still a big deal.”  (My note: Mind you, this was a laboratory finding.)

“The researchers would like to see more testing, first in animals, then in humans, and then hopefully a clinical trial in years to come.” (My note: this is where/when any “real results” would start to come in.  And, FYI, the human trials ARE the clinical trials.  Those are not separate stages.)

The anchor asked:

“In terms of breast cancer breakthroughs, where would this rank?”

The reporter hedged before saying:

“The researchers hope it’s a really high breakthrough.” (My note:  What would a “low” breakthrough be?)

Results of a Google search suggest that the paper received very little attention elsewhere. In one story, a UK professor wisely said:

“There’s a long way to go before we get a handle on the cancer’s true genetic complexity, let alone turn this into treatments to help patients.”

The Minnesota Daily newspaper actually used the word “cure” four times in its story about this laboratory-only finding, including in its headline.


A veteran health care reporter for the Star Tribune delivered a far more measured story.


The words used in health care stories matter.  See my article, “The 7 Words You Shouldn’t Use in Medical News,” from more than a decade ago.  “Cure” and “breakthrough” are two of the words that patients nominated for inclusion on that list.


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Greg Pawelski

February 8, 2013 at 11:49 am

This is what happens when you simply try to find a mutation and then develop or pick an appropriately targeted drug. It seems like a nice idea, however, not every key that looks like it will fit a lock will actually turn it. There are numerous common or even uncommon mutations in various tumor types, but they don’t know that all those mutations are going to turn out to be relevant, as many of them are essentially bystanders.

Anyone familiar with cellular biology knows that having the genetic sequence of a known gene (genotype) does not equate to having the disease state (phenotype) represented by that gene. It requires specific cellular triggers and specialized cellular mechanisms to literally translate the code into the work horse of the cellular world – proteins.

Cells are routinely broken up by mechanical and enzymatic (APOBEC3B) means, which alters their subsequent behavior. Some methods like cell-lines have limited analysis only to isolated tumor cells and fail to incorporate the crucial contribution of non-tumorous elements to the cancer phenomenon.

But I guess the publicity helps to get more research funding.

Jim Handman

February 11, 2013 at 11:36 am

Gary – although you are right to criticise the press for using words such as “breakthrough” or “cure”, I think the blame needs to be spread to the researchers themselves. In this case, the actual scientists who did the research used the words “breakthrough” and “cure”. And I think it is asking a lot of some local reporter, with little expertise in medical reporting, to be critical or skeptical of the researcher’s own conclusions. I’d like to see more critical reviews of the scientists and their own press releases. It’s not just the media’s fault.

    Gary Schwitzer

    February 11, 2013 at 11:49 am


    Thanks for your note.

    I agree with you that “it’s not just the media’s fault.”

    And if I worked for a journal or for an academic medical center, I’d push harder to try to reform the language that is used by researchers and scientists.

    But I’m just an old journalist. So our primary focus is on improving health care journalism. And if a local reporter has little expertise in medical reporting, then I hold the news organization responsible for assigning that person, for not providing sufficient training or sufficient editing. In cases like this, harm can be done by misleading people. You’ll notice that I never mentioned the individual reporters’ names. I hold the news organization responsible at the highest level.

    One additional note: I’d love to launch a project parallel to our existing project, but one that would review health care/medical science news releases – sort of a Hoping for future funding to allow us to do that. But even at our current level, we frequently criticize the language used in health/medical/science news releases, in journal articles, and in the words chosen by researchers to describe their own work.

      Jim Handman

      February 11, 2013 at 11:55 am

      Brilliant! That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking about as well. Keep in touch.