Animal studies, reported well, include careful framing and clear caveats

Jill U. Adams is a health journalist and an associate editor at HealthNewsReview.org. She tweets as @juadams.

Here at HealthNewsReview.org, we’ve been known to be critical of news articles making health care claims that are based on research in animals. For recent examples, see these news story reviews:  

I want to make something clear: We’re not saying news outlets can’t cover basic science. We simply want such stories to not blur the line between laboratory research and health care advice, to avoid suggesting that new treatments, or worse, “cures,” are coming soon.

I run across such misleading stories several times a week in my morning news read, something I blogged about a few weeks ago in this 2017 year-end post. So I was heartened on the first workday of the new year to find some examples of how to do it right. 

STAT stays cautious with HIV coverage

A story about HIV research, written by health reporter Sharon Begley for STAT, prepares readers with a helpful headline: Preliminary study hints that genetically modified T cells might fight HIV. Words like “preliminary” and “hints” are appropriately cautionary — the story is not talking about a potential treatment that will be available any time soon.

The opening paragraph continues the cautionary notes — noting the tiny study size and animal/lab dish context — even as it drums up interest for reading the rest of the article:

The same kind of DNA tinkering that produced the first FDA-approved gene therapy for cancer has shown hints of suppressing and even eradicating HIV infection in lab animals, scientists have reported. Although the study was small — it tested the genetically engineered “CAR” cells on only two monkeys as well as on cells growing in lab dishes — it suggests that after 30 years of fruitless efforts to come up with an AIDS vaccine there might be a wholly new way to get the immune system to fight HIV infection.”

The story had its flaws, though. It doesn’t mention the research focused on simian HIV (SHIV), which is a construct of human and monkey virus, not HIV (only found in humans). Any link to human disease treatment may be even more tenuous than the coverage suggests. But it’s still a vast improvement on the UCLA news release about the study, which makes only a glancing reference to test animals far down in the release and omits any discussion of the study’s many limitations.

New York Times explores mouse studies on dietary fiber without making any health claims

Science writer Carl Zimmer tackles a process that’s a bit of a black box in health research for the New York Times. Studies consistently find associations between increased fiber intake and rates of chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. Zimmer states that upfront and then goes on to describe new research in mice that offer clues as to the potential physiological mechanisms that give rise to such observations.

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The story’s headline is playful and forthright: Fiber Is Good for You. Now Scientists May Know Why. The story delves into several lines of research that show fiber intake supports bacterial communities in the gut that contribute to healthier (rodent) intestines, while insufficient fiber intake spurs a series of events that lead to chronic inflammation in the (rodent) body. 

Zimmer quotes a researcher who warns that the studies must be replicated in humans before drawing too many conclusions, including potentially clinically relevant ones:

Hannah D. Holscher, a nutrition scientist at the University of Illinois who was not involved in the new studies, said that the results on mice need to be put to the test in humans. But it’s much harder to run such studies on people.

So studies in mice are easier to do and give researchers clues about underlying biology. However, experimental approaches that work in mice face long odds in carrying over to humans. A systematic review of animal intervention studies found that only one-third translated to successful interventions in people. And those that bridged the gap took an average of 14 years to make it to people.

A mouse study complements human diet studies in The Wall Street Journal

A health story about a dieting strategy, A Diet Strategy That Counts Time, Not Calorieswritten by columnist Sumathi Reddy, examines a suite of clinical research studies in which participants restricted meals to a 10- or 12-hour block of time each day and experienced weight loss, lower blood pressure, and healthier glucose levels.

A single paragraph midway through the piece summarizes what’s known about the physiology of these effects from animal studies, which might explain the results seen in human trials:

TRF studies of mice—which provide the bulk of research on the strategy—have found that the body, when fasting for half a day or more, has more time to produce the components for cellular repair, break down toxins and coloring agents in food, and repair damaged DNA in the skin and stomach lining, according to Dr. Panda. 

The mouse research is a way of getting to the why — as Zimmer’s entire New York Times story does — in the middle of a recounting of human results.

Newsweek makes missteps in coverage of Alzheimers

Newsweek reports on a study that tested a diabetes medication on a mouse model of Alzheimer’s diseases and skirts the edges of responsibility in our view. The headline, in Newsweek’s signature all caps: DIABETES DRUG REVERSES ALZHEIMER’S SYMPTOMS IN MICE; REDUCES BRAIN PLAQUE BUILDUP AND IMPROVES MEMORY

We’ll give Newsweek bonus points for including the word “mice” in the title. But we’ll take some of those points back for the overly sunny tone of the opening paragraph:

Promising new animal research suggests a drug originally developed to treat diabetes significantly reverses memory loss and brain degeneration in mice with a rodent version of Alzheimer’s disease. If the same is proven true in humans, the drug could one day be used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease and other memory-related illnesses.

The problem begins with the first word, “promising,” which is on our list of 7 words that shouldn’t be used in health news stories. The second sentence seems an appropriate caveat, and yet, the larger context is that other Alzheimer’s drugs have shown promise in animal models only to fail in human studies. In other words, that’s a very big if, especially in light of a disease that causes real suffering and distress in millions of American families.

The Newsweek reporter then picked the most glowing quote from the university news release about the study:

The results suggest that the diabetes drug has a “clear promise of being developed into a new treatment for chronic neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease,” lead study researcher Christian Holscher of Lancaster University said in a statement on Sunday. 

Clear promise? Hardly.

One day, four articles. Mostly good choices in the practice of health news journalism — descriptive headlines, cautious language, and plenty of caveats.

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