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Making sense of news based on animal studies: An update to our toolkit

Jill U. Adams is a health care journalist and an associate editor at HealthNewsReview.org.

A chemical compound can “reverse aging” in mice, many news outlets recently reported, including ABC News, TIME, STAT, and The Boston Globe.

“Reports have suggested that this might someday lead to a new drug for human use,” ABC News speculated. The Boston Globe told us the lead scientist thinks the compound “could not only restore energy and vitality in humans but also increase their life expectancy.”

Ooof. Those are the kind of health news claims that make the HealthNewsReview.org team gird ourselves. Why? Because we have seen too many stories in which claims or advice for readers are based on results observed in mice or other animals (or even cells in a petri dish). 

That said, we stop short of saying animal and lab studies should never appear on the health page. There are good practices to framing these stories appropriately. The ABC news story, for example, hit many marks:

  • It tips readers off right away, by using the word “mice” in the headline
  • It reminds readers that any application to humans is “years off”
  • It cautions that the chemical’s effects in human might be different
  • It raises the possibility that the chemical might not be safe for human use

New expanded toolkit primer

To help our readers make sense of the claims, we have published an expanded primer in our toolkit: Why you should be cautious of health claims based on animal and lab studies.

In it, you’ll find an explanation of why scientists conduct animal studies, why journalists must be cautious to not overstate the findings, examples of good and bad news coverage, and tips to avoid common pitfalls when writing about animal studies.

You’ll also find a very succinct analysis from Susan Molchan, MD, in particular when she speaks about Alzheimer’s disease studies involving mice.

“They’ve cured mouseheimer’s disease I don’t know how many times now,” Molchan says.

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