Michael Joyce is a writer-producer with HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce
Sometimes I wish I were a mouse.
If only because they seem to do so well with so many treatments and interventions in medical studies.
But I’m not a mouse, so these studies — although they can make important contributions to basic science — usually don’t apply to me (or interested patients) in the here and now.
But you’d never know that from the hundreds of news stories and news releases we’ve reviewed over the years that frequently frame results from rodent (or other animal) studies to imply — or even overtly claim — human benefits.
Such misleading narratives may be one small step for a public relations writer or journalist, but they’re a giant leap for a mouse study.
Lest you think I exaggerate, yesterday was a good example. Our reviewers came across three news releases (before lunch no less!) that — either with their headline, or the language used — took data from mice to suggest hope, promise, or progress for extremely common conditions that affect hundreds of millions of people.
Here are those three news releases and, quite frankly, they’re mild compared to what we often come across:
The first two news releases come from the same conference (hosted by the somewhat PC-named “Society for Ingestive Behavior” … that’s “eating,” right?) and were both written by the same PR person.
The first one strikes me as handled best. Unlike many news releases we come across it actually makes it clear in the headline — and again high up in the release — that this is an animal study. It explains the drug modification clearly, employs fairly cautious language, and even anticipates what could be an understandable misinterpretation of the results by writing:
Although these results may give some people the idea to eat more spicy food to lose weight, that would not work as intended. Most of the capsaicin in spicy food is not well absorbed into the body, so it would not produce these effects. The researchers specifically modified the capsaicin in Metabocin for proper absorption and sustained release.
Kudos for that caution. It serves readers well.
The second news release teaches another lesson we come across frequently: the use of “could” (likewise, “may”).On the one hand, you’d think using “could” implies caution or uncertainty. But on the other hand, it’s really overly suggestive if the data — as in the case of this research — are much too preliminary to even warrant speculation.
From the headline, readers might think the diabetes treatment “could” help them with their side effects. A deeper read will reveal that it really only helps a certain type of shrew “with a vomiting reflex similar to humans.”
Only rarely is it justified to use the word “could” when referring to human benefits extrapolated from rodent research.
As for the final news release in our list above, it’s not until nearly the end of the release — after a litany of touted benefits — that we learn the research in is in mice. In this case, it’s particularly worrisome since the positive changes mentioned are all in the brain, leaving readers to wonder how this 3D high-resolution “nanoscope” is visualizing their brain tissues!
There’s another problem here and we’ve written about it before: the suggestion that identifying surrogate markers early — in this case amyloid plaques — will somehow help prevent or improve Alzheimer’s disease.
Although I was happy to see the inclusion of this caveat …”while strictly a research tool for the foreseeable future” … the follow-up language is worrisome: “(this technology) gives insight into the biological causes of the disease, so that we can see if we can stop the formation of these damaging structures in the brain.”
That language is unjustified because it’s not supported by this study. Amyloid plaques are not “the cause” of Alzheimer’s disease.
Although these news releases aren’t the worst we’ve seen, they still should give us pause for what they represent: 3 news releases, about 3 mouse studies, with 3 headlines suggesting human benefits for 3 very common and high-impact conditions.
We remind those who write health/medical/science PR news releases of our 10 criteria that we’ve used to review over 550 news releases so far. And we remind them of our offer to review draft releases in advance to try to help improve them. We’d catch the mistakes noted above.
At the very least, perhaps those who write health care PR news releases might consider adopting the UK labeling system that we wrote about recently that — while taking only baby steps — at least alerts readers up front if a release is about mice or people.
I’m left wondering: Even if we were to do that, would it make a difference? Maybe it “could.”