New hope in the epidemic of binge-drinking rodents: Aussie lab sparks premature claims on old drugs as addiction treatments

Alan Cassels is a drug policy researcher and regular contributor to the blog. He is also the author, most recently, of The Cochrane Collaboration: Medicine’s Best-Kept Secret. He tweets as @akecassels

Happy cartoon mouse lies in the glass of wine and holding handsWho doesn’t like recycling? Along with reusing and reducing, recycling is an important part of keeping down the size of your ecological footprint. In terms of healthcare we should certainly appreciate attempts to take older pharmaceuticals and recycle or repurpose them.  And I think we should encourage research that seeks to develop evidence to support new uses for old drugs.

At the same time, the canyonesque leap from rodent research to bold claims that such research could solve global health problems is a lemming cliff journalists should stand back from. For example, according to this news release issued by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia, there is “new hope in the form of a drug already approved by the Food and Drug Administration” to help stop the “almost 3.8 per cent of deaths worldwide” due to alcohol misuse.

Really?  Taking an old drug and turning it into a solution to a global health problem — based on research performed in rodents?

Spruiking scientists generate misleading headlines

The study tested pindolol, a beta-blocker drug that is typically used to treat high blood pressure and angina, as a potential way to treat alcohol dependence. The news release unfortunately resulted in much spruiking (Australian slang for “promotion”) especially when this small rodent study gets characterized as an “internationally-significant breakthrough.” The lead scientist, Professor Selena Bartlett from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, helpfully added that they won’t know for sure if the drug is effective until human clinical trials are conducted. But that didn’t stop her from describing her study with the kind of eulogizing words we lecture against: ”a ground-breaking development with enormous potential.” The first and only mention of animals in the release doesn’t come until the second-to-last paragraph.

Of course when the lead researcher gushes so emphatically about her research, a range of inappropriate headlines is sure to follow. The UK Metro reported, This new ‘ground-breaking’ drug could treat alcohol addiction.”  The Science Explorer wrote that “Researchers May have Discovered the World-First New Treatment for Alcohol Addiction.”

Taking an observational study of binge-drinking rats who cut back on the sauce when given pindolol, and suggesting it’s a solution to the global problem of alcohol addiction, seems like more than the usual amount of overstatement from a scientific laboratory. But wait, there’s more! It seems like Dr. Bartlett’s research center itself is a little addicted to spruiking.

“Game-changing” drug treats sugar-addicted rats 

The soundbites coming from her study in PLOS the previous week told us that “a world-first game-changing study” used drugs for smoking cessation to cut back on sugar addiction. While the “disease” in itself may be an example of disease mongering (or diet mongering) — implying that sugar addiction is real and deadly — the implications for humans are strongly suggested but poorly supported. Again, we’re talking about five-week-old male Wistar rats who reduce their sugar cravings when they are fed varenicline (a prescription medication sold as Chantix which treats nicotine addiction). It didn’t say if the drug helped those rats give up tobacco in any statistically significant manner. 

Some of the headlines about that study certainly push the envelope. This one in Medical Daily says, “Sugar Addiction is Like Drug Abuse and We Should Treat it the Same: Study” and Huff Post added to the noise around this study by suggesting, in essence, that “sugar is the new smoking.” In other words, it’s an addiction and, like any old addiction worth its salt, is destined to be a target for a pharmaceutical solution. Backpedaling somewhat, Dr. Bartlett said: “I’m not advocating a direct drug treatment for sugar addiction.” But even her qualifications and caveats were couched in sensationalist terms: “But it is game-changing, in the sense you can demonstrate that alcohol and nicotine and sugar are changing the brain in exactly the same way.”

Could Chantix become a solution to the global obesity epidemic?  Hmm, that is a stretch indeed, but thankfully Behind the Headlines, produced by the NHS in the UKdoes a commendable job of deconstructing this study. It should be on the list of go-to resources for journalists who want to distinguish the science from the spruiking. 


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