Dump the diabetes cure talk – after a dozen patients in an early-stage trial

We’re going to react to headlines like this every time we see them.

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AP diabetes cure headline


Sure they are.  So are a lot of other people.  But should a leading news wire service be teasing a possible diabetes cure – after 12 people are enrolled in an early-stage trial?

This was a business story, about a partnership between two companies. That’s what it should have stuck to – the business deal.  But the headline and the first line of the story talk about “cure,” which is going to lure patients, not just investors, and it leads one to look for data.  And there aren’t any.

This is the most the story has to offer:

“The privately held company began the first round of patient testing a year ago, implanting its product, dubbed VC-01, in a dozen people with Type 1 diabetes, said Paul Laikind, ViaCyte’s CEO and president. They received a small dose of insulin-producing cells inside their devices and are being closely monitored for two years to see insulin production and other effects.

After 12 weeks, the device had properly attached to nearby blood vessels, their new insulin-producing cells were still multiplying and no side effects were seen. Another dozen planned patients will soon get the same cell dose in capsules to be implanted in them.”

Early, phase I results.  But certainly nothing here that translates to “cure.”  Yet the story does everything it can to inflate the hype balloon, with sentences such as:

“If it works as well in patients as it has in animals, it would amount to a cure.”

Yes, and if a frog had wings….  an equally huge leap as the statement above.

More elegantly, the late Dr. Thomas Chalmers, former dean of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, once said:

“One only has to review the graveyard of discarded therapies to discover how many patients have benefited from being randomly assigned to a control group.”

Let’s let the important research play out before we start playing the “cure” card.  This may turn out to be big stuff.  There will be plenty of time to use all of the superlatives you wish once that evidence is in.

Meantime, look at how many other news organizations thoughtlessly parroted the AP cure story, including:

And let’s not forget last week’s diabetes cure.  There were at least 200 stories about a different research effort that was framed as having cure within its grasp:

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I’d recommend that the news organizations that post these stories do for health care news what they already do for sports news:  track batting averages, shooting percentages, win/loss records regarding your own news coverage over time.  Or, as will happen after the Super Bowl, go back and see who predicted sure winners and losers – and do the same thing with your own health news coverage.  In sports, they don’t declare a winner until the final buzzer or gun goes off.  In health care news, we shouldn’t be declaring cures – even cures within grasp – until the grasp is firm.

People get hurt by hype. That’s why this stuff matters.   We profiled one example recently.  We have some others in the works.

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