Of news releases and mice

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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.

A Tuesday morning at HealthNewsReview.org

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:

  1. Anti-obesity drug derived from chili peppers shows promise in animal trials
  2. Diabetes drug with better side-effect tolerance could improve treatment
  3. New development in 3D super-resolution imaging gives insight on Alzheimer’s disease

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.

A case of “could”

The second news release teaches another lesson we come across frequently: the use of “could” (likewise, “may”).

Musk shrew: “a vomiting reflex similar to humans.” [Wikimedia Commons]

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.

A case of surrogate markers

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.

A case for labeling?

animal researchAlthough 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.”

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Comments (2)

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Pat Bowne

July 18, 2018 at 3:08 pm

I keep posting this criticism in comments over at Science Daily, but I get no answers. I sent them feedback suggesting they adopt the UK labelling standards.
Maybe if enough of us do this, it will make a difference? #pollyana

Barbara Stagno

July 23, 2018 at 11:53 am

I doubt you wish you were a mouse because if you were, you’d be looking at a barren life in a filing-cabinet style, shoe-box dwelling, while waiting to be infected, injected or injured for some study. That is, if you weren’t already born with deformities due to some genetically manipulated abnormality. Or died from lack of water because there were so many millions of you that a “simple” malfunction shut down your water supply and no one noticed.
The miserable – and totally artificial — existence of millions of mice is one of the many reasons why these medical studies are pure folly. I appreciate the work you do to highlight these deficiencies.
That fact that mice are living, sentient beings makes this folly more than just wasted resources, and should be taken into account. Mice are not simply widgets who deliver poor results. With the mountain of information out there on how mice and other animal studies consistently fail, we need to raise the bar considerably higher on what is permissible or not when it comes to taking their lives for “medical research”.