For the third time this month, we have a classic confrontation of competing, conflicting story framing from journalists on a medical research topic. (See our earlier post about the previous two examples.) This time, it was a question of breakthrough or flop…reject dramatic findings or verify them…sometimes presented both ways in different articles posted by the same news source!
U.S. scientists say a dramatic result last year suggesting that a cancer drug already approved by U.S. regulators could quickly clear out Alzheimer’s plaques in mice was too good to be true.
The study, published last year in the journal Science, showed the skin cancer drug bexarotene cut the amount of an Alzheimer’s-linked protein called beta amyloid by half in three days. It also reversed Alzheimer’s symptoms, restoring a sense of smell in treated mice and allowing them to resume nest building activities.
The news sent patients clamoring for the drug, and some doctors began prescribing it, even though it had not been tested in people with Alzheimer’s. But researchers at several U.S. centers reported in the same journal on Thursday that they were unable to reproduce the most dramatic aspects of the findings in their own labs.
Gary Landreth and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, the scientists behind the original research, say the drug still has merit, noting that the latest studies confirmed other aspects of the research showing the drug cleared out soluble forms of beta amyloid from the brain.
Scientists say the controversy is a stark reminder of the need for studies to be replicated by other labs, and it underscores the desperation of Alzheimer’s sufferers to find effective treatments for the fatal, brain-wasting disease that affects 5 million Americans and 38 million people worldwide.
“I was a fan of the original study,” said Dr. Samuel Gandy, associate director of the Mount Sinai Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in New York, who was not involved in any of the studies.
“It was very dramatic. It cut plaque loads by three-quarters over less than a week. No one had ever seen anything like it before.”
Gandy has had several patients asking for the treatment. Although U.S. doctors are free to prescribe any treatment approved by the FDA, Gandy said the drug has substantial liver toxicity and requires very careful monitoring.
“I have universally declined and advised others to decline.”
The other side:
See how a Pitt news release was displayed on ScienceDaily.com: “Drug reverses Alzheimer’s disease deficits in mice.“**
And, indeed, that news release was all some journalists/publishers apparently needed:
*** Note that Science Daily also published this: “Multiple research teams unable to confirm high-profile Alzheimer’s study.” It was based on another news release from another academic medical center.
It’s also noteworthy that the MedicalDaily.com website apparently tried to have it both ways, reporting:
And, on a separate research effort elsewhere, UPI.com reported, “Drug prevents, treats Alzheimer’s disease in mice.” The story ends with a quote from one of the researchers: “It’s just mouse data, but extremely encouraging mouse data.”
When will we learn?
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