5-star FridaySometimes things are clear as mud.

This 5-star Friday is a good example. Take three of our choices below:  drug companies that aren’t drug companies, a tick-borne illness that may or may not be a disease, and the very human urge to be drawn to the repulsive.

Other times things are quite clear. As in our first choice below which reminds us that we not only need “more healthy skepticism” but  “more science journalists [who] are moved to dig beneath the surface to reveal when individuals and organizations distort science to subvert the public interest.”

The writing below features just such journalists (and one blogging scientist!)

Gary Schwitzer | Publisher & Founder

Perspectives on uncritical NYT coverage of cardiac mitochondrial transplant trial • by Paul Knoepfler, PhD • The Niche – Knoepfler Lab Stem Cell Blog

Gary Schwitzer, Publisher

After we recently announced the probable end of our daily publication at the end of 2018, many of our followers emailed or wrote on social media things like, “Where can we turn now for reliable health care information?”   Science journalist Liza Gross wrote about us, but added, “I hope more science journalists are moved to dig beneath the surface to reveal when individuals and organizations distort science to subvert the public interest.”

But others can step up as well, as scientist Paul Knoepfler, PhD has done, often pointing out harmful stem cell hype as he did in one of our podcasts.

This week he criticized a New York Times story, Dying Organs Restored  to Life in Novel Experiments. Knoepfler wrote:

Restored to life?

In my train of thought there was a kind of “uh-oh” moment both from reading that title and then some more as I got deeper into the piece.

He went on to list detailed concerns about what he called the Times’ uncritical coverage. Here are his headings – please read the rest yourself:

First, some things about the technology struck me as ranging from puzzling to improbable.

Second, this research is very preliminary.

Finally, some aspects of the NYT piece itself are concerning and it feels unbalanced overall. I think there should have been more healthy skepticism in the piece in general.

He concludes, sounding like a member of our editorial team:

It can be a challenge to find the right balance between reporting on cool new research to appropriately convey the associated excitement and at the same time to keep asking the needed probing questions, but the bottom line is that there are concrete risks from science coverage that doesn’t take a sufficiently critical eye to sexy, new biomedical research. How many times have we seen that in the stem cell field?

Whether HealthNewsReview.org survives or not, we need more scientists and clinicians – like Knoepfler, Vinay Prasad, Otis Brawley, Susan Molchan, John Mandrola, Deanna Attai, Kenny Lin, Timothy Caulfield, etc. –  who have shown that they can communicate effectively to help patients, health care consumers and news consumers avoid avoidable ignorance and avoidable harm.

Kevin Lomangino | Managing Editor

Acadia Pharmaceuticals: This Is Not a Pharmaceuticals Company • by Roddy Boyd • Southern Investigative Reporting Foundation

Kevin Lomangino

This deeply reported long read takes readers far beneath the façade of Acadia Pharmaceuticals, a company that reporter Roddy Boyd describes as “a ruthless marketing entity whose pursuit of regulatory approval is best described as ‘loophole-centric.’” We’ve written a lot about Acadia, and how journalists failed to scrutinize the marginal benefits and significant harms of its drug Nuplazid used to treat psychosis related to Parkinson’s disease. This story provides that missing scrutiny and then some, describing how the company is borrowing from the marketing playbook of another small drug company — Avanir Pharmaceuticals – whose aggressive pursuit of the nursing home market has been flagged by regulators as potentially fraudulent.

This is a story for journalists to keep an eye on, because Acadia wants to expand approval for Nuplazid to the larger and more lucrative Alzheimer’s market. Experts are already raising red flags about the research supporting this new use, but journalists may have a hard time hearing them above the din of “key opinion leaders” (like Robert Yapundich, MD, whom we wrote about) on the growing Acadia payroll.

Jill U. Adams | Associate Editor

The Science Isn’t Settled on Chronic Lyme • by Maya Dusenbery and Julie Rehmeyer • Slate

Jill U. Adams

If you’ve ever wondered why the very existence of chronic Lyme disease is contentious, this is the article for you. The authors, two journalists experienced in writing about gender bias in medicine (Maya Dusenbery) and poorly understood illness (Julie Rehmeyer), tackle the controversy.

They do so with an impressive telling of the science as it currently stands. One big problem is the trouble with diagnosis: Lyme’s telltale rash doesn’t always show up and the blood test is known to give both false positive and false negative results with some regularity. How can you know if an experimental treatment works when you don’t have a reliable measure of infection? And yet patients, often women, who may well have chronic Lyme are all too frequently dismissed by mainstream doctors.  

Those who reject the possibility of chronic Lyme cite the current lack of evidence and, in the authors’ words, “act as though the science is already settled.” But the weak knowledge base about Lyme (and other tick-borne infections) is actually the result of a lack of research, Dusenbery and Rehmeyer argue. Their conclusion: “Cut the contempt. Let’s do the science and figure this disease out.”

Michael Joyce | Writer-Producer

A sociologist explains why we make spectacle out of trauma like the Thai cave boys • by Brian Resnick • Vox

Michael Joyce

Maybe we’re all feeling like science reporter Brian Resnick after what seems like an endless flow of school shootings and other 24/7 coverage of unfolding human drama-trauma stories.

Resnick wants to understand why we feel compelled to watch, “and is it okay if we tune in?”

He struggles with “what was very likely a traumatic experience for these young people [and] turning it into round-the-clock entertainment” in which the boys become “unwitting celebrities.”

Put another way:

I also felt uneasy because of a frustrating bias in humans. We tend to care more about dramatic tragedies that strike a relatively small number of people, and grow numb to the slow, ongoing horrors that inflict millions. Twelve boys were trapped in a cave, yes. But there are millions of children living in war zones.

If this all sounds like a worn-out and unsoluble agony, it’s in his focused Q&A with sociologist, Tim Recuber, that we come across the notion of “empathic hedonism” … and that’s the point when the article is hard to put down.

Please Note: These stories have not been subject to our rigorous, 10-criteria systematic review for accuracy, balance, and completeness. Rather, they represent pieces of health care journalism and opinion writing that members of our staff found compelling and wanted to share with others.

5-Star Friday is a regular feature on HealthNewsReview.org. You can find a list of previous installments HERE.

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Comments (3)

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Mark Schoene

July 16, 2018 at 8:51 am

This column presents the article “Science Isn’t Settled on Chronic Lyme” as an “impressive telling of the science on [Lyme Disease] as it currently stands.”

To my eye, this is not an even-handed look at the evidence in this area. It is a somewhat partisan, and unbalanced, review—though certainly provocative.

If the HNR criteria could be adapted for this kind of work, don’t think the article on Lyme Disease would get a good score. Would seem to fall short in several areas—particularly balance.

Slate could have run an equally long and impressive article by proponents of the hypothesis that Lyme is NOT a chronic disease.

A balanced article would be one that presented both points of view—which this article clearly did not.

Mark Schoene
Editor, The BackLetter
Lippincott Williams & Wilkins
Newbury MA

Consumer Representative
Cochrane Collaboration Back and Neck Group

p.s. HNR, thanks for all the great work. The demise of HNR is a tremendous loss for all of us.

William M. London

July 16, 2018 at 3:13 pm

The Slate piece argues from ignorance & anti-sexism concerns against dismissing notion of chronic Lyme disease. It sidesteps the problem of so-called Lyme-literate doctors who promote/offer to many female patients non-validated long-term antibiotics. 5-stars, really?

    Jill Adams

    July 18, 2018 at 12:26 pm

    I’m not surprised to see objections to my selection here. As our disclaimer says, 5-star Friday picks “represent pieces of health care journalism and opinion writing that members of our staff found compelling and wanted to share with others.”

    The very mention of chronic Lyme is contentious from the get-go. Here’s what I thought was worthy: A careful distinction made between Lyme disease (universally recognized), post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS, recognized by the CDC), and chronic Lyme, which is ill-defined and hotly contested.

    Was the Slate article unbalanced? Does its mere publication (and my highlighting it) promote medical quackery? The authors certainly make mention of so-called “Lyme-literate” doctors using treatments that are not evidence-based. A documentation of hucksters and unproven treatment regimens is worthy — and there are plenty of examples, as a twitter follower shared.

    However, these examples of shoddy science do not prove or disprove the existence of a chronic Lyme syndrome, only that the syndrome (call it whatever you want) is poorly understood. The authors argue that more research can only help.

    And while some patients are harmed by quackery, others are harmed by the sheer contentiousness of the chronic Lyme brouhaha:

    Indeed, despite the CDC’s stamp of approval and the fact that even conservative estimates suggest that at least 30,000 people every year develop PTLDS, it isn’t treated with all that much more respect than chronic Lyme. Skeptics argue that the array of symptoms PTLDS patients experience—muscle and joint pain, fatigue, cognitive problems—are so subjective and nonspecific that they may have nothing to do with Lyme disease. Sufferers’ true problem might be psychiatric—depression or “maladaptive belief systems“ or “a tendency to somatization.”