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A monkey study of CAR T-cells and HIV: What you need to know

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Michael Joyce is a writer-producer with and tweets as @mlmjoyce

A news release about a gene therapy that tantalizes with the phrase “could provide long-term protection against HIV” in its title — or claims in the opening paragraph that the therapy has “the potential to create long-term immunity from the virus that causes AIDS”  — certainly owes readers some solid context to back up their claims.

But this UCLA news release from last week falls short. Here’s why:

This was brought to our attention by veteran biomedical journalist, Bob Roehr, who has written extensively about HIV.

He shared these concerns by email:

“Particularly troubling is the use of HIV in the headline, when HIV is found only in humans, and the study used SHIV in monkeys.

The monkey model has proven useful in some situations, but it has significant limitations. Monkeys generally tolerate the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) without serious illness, while HIV results in close to 100 percent mortality if left untreated. HIV does not infect monkeys. So studies must be done with either SIV, or with an artificial construct not found in nature — called SHIV — that consists of parts of both HIV and SIV. The many different SHIV constructs have varying degrees of lethality in primates.”

In other words, language which implies benefits for people with AIDS is a giant leap. A leap many journalists might unwittingly take at the expense of their readers — or, worse yet — at the expense of people with HIV.

My colleague Jill Adams highlights some coverage that mostly avoids this pitfall through clear statements about the limitations of animal studies such as this one. She also points out how the coverage could have done a better job establishing context.

Let me state the obvious: when it comes to news releases, there are two questions worth remembering. First, is it news? Second, what’s being released?

In this case it’s fair to argue that anything that touches upon HIV/AIDS is certainly newsworthy. It’s equally fair to suggest that the words we choose in releasing such news should emphasize thoughtfulness as much as they do impact.

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