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Problematic PR releases: more mice, more muddled messages

Gary Schwitzer is founder and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org.  He has worked in health care journalism for 45 years.  Twitter:  @garyschwitzer

In our continuing series on problematic public relations news releases, we add another entry to our category on claims made about animal studies. The reason we’re continuing to hammer away on this issue is that, as you’ll see in these examples, many news releases deliver misleading messages that can easily be misinterpreted by readers.  We think the problem is so large that we extend an unprecedented offer of help to those who write news releases, hoping to prevent flaws like the ones seen below – in PR releases about sperm quality, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, cardiovascular disease and inflammatory bowel disease.

Father’s diet could affect the long-term health of his offspring

If the father and his offspring are mice.  Which was made abundantly clear in this University of Nottingham (UK) release, once you got past the headline. But while this release is clear about the mouse model employed, it says that “this new study bridges a gap” because little is known about the impact of lifestyle factors on the long-term health of a father’s offspring.  We don’t think that you can bridge a gap with a single mouse study.  That’s a leap over the gap that still exists between a mouse study and human relevance.  But throughout the release, direct inferences about human implications were made – including a heading, “Improving dietary advice given to prospective fathers.”  Seriously?  Based on one study of a couple dozen mice?

World-first breakthrough for difficult-to-treat breast cancer

You already know the punchline: in mice.  But think of the impact of a headline like this from Hong Kong Baptist University on women diagnosed with breast cancer.  The scientific paper, on which the news release is based, is far more conservative: “We anticipate that (this) may be used as a novel scaffold for the further development of more potent epigenetic agents against cancers.” If the university isn’t going to do a better job on a news release, perhaps the EurekAlert service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science – which distributed the release – needs to do some enforcement of quality measures (such as our 10 criteria). Because doesn’t the advancement of science depend on the advancement of responsible communication of scientific research?

Researchers identify new potential biotherapy for Alzheimer’s Disease 

It bothers me when I see women with breast cancer jerked around by sensational headlines, as in the last example.  It bothers me just as much or more to see Alzheimer’s disease patients and their families misled.  This release comes from The Rockefeller University Press, based on a study in the Journal of Experimental Medicine which it publishes.  The opening line further drives home a direct human inference: “Researchers at the University of Florida have discovered that a modified version of an important immune cell protein could be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.”  Only then do we learn that the research was in “the brains of Alzheimer’s disease model mice.”  The release later quotes the lead author admitting that this mouse model may not capture the entire range of Alzheimer’s problems, meaning that this early research would need to be “further explored in multiple models of Alzheimer’s disease.  Hmm.  Not quite as sexy as the headline or the first sentence promising something that “could be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.”

In test with rats, cannabidiol showed sustained effects against depression for seven days

Well, at least this Brazilian news release put “rats” in the headline.  And the news release was very detailed. First, if you’re into details about how animal studies are done, you must read about the “forced swim test” the animals did.  The release discussed “rat and mouse lines selected by cross-breeding to develop symptoms of depression” – which should lead readers to wonder whether this is a good model from which to make a projection like this about human studies that aren’t even done yet:

“they could result in an important advance in the treatment of depression, potentially helping patients who suffer for weeks, often with a risk of suicide, until the treatment starts working.”

Lower cholesterol treatment breakthrough

I was lured in by the first sentence of the release: “The American offshoot of Australian biotech Noxopharm, Nyrada, believes it is within reach of achieving a major advance in the treatment of cardiovascular disease.”  That was “breakthrough” and “major advance” within the first 20 words.  But I went through the entire release several times searching for details on what stage the research was in – in order to see how close we might be to this breakthrough.  All I could find was this:

NYX-330 currently is undergoing studies in France and elsewhere designed to optimise its function, with an anticipated 15-18 months before it will be ready to bring into the clinic.

Hmm. Sounds like the studies don’t even need to be done if the company can anticipate FDA approval as a fait accompli, allowing clinical use within 18 months.  So I looked further on the company website and found:

NYX-330 now has passed a series of critical tests conducted by the Company and involving both laboratory and animal studies designed to confirm its potential ability to meet those marketing objectives.

And that’s why a news release touting a breakthrough and a major advance ended up on this page about problematic PR releases about animal studies.

Strawberries could help reduce harmful inflammation in the colon

from American Chemical Society news release

This is about research on inflammatory bowel disease – a painful problem that can cause severe diarrhea and fatigue in perhaps 3 million adults, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  But, alas, this news release is only about mice.  But it took the release 363 words and 6 paragraphs to disclose that.  This release came from the American Chemical Society. And look at just a sample of all the news it generated:

Strawberries could treat bowel disease: The little red fruits may reduce diarrhea and weight loss in people with Crohn’s disease or colitis – First sentence: “Eating a handful of strawberries a day could help millions of people cope with inflammatory bowel disease.”
Strawberries could reduce colon inflammation, study finds
Strawberries: What to Eat to Fight Inflammatory Bowel Disease
Strawberries may reduce gut inflammation
Can strawberries help cure intestinal inflammation?

And that is why we have reviewed more than 550 health care PR news releases.  Because many – indeed, most that we’ve seen – abdicate the responsibility to educate in favor of hyping results.

Put “mice” in the headlines and you’d go a long way toward establishing a more responsible framing for the research. (Except that didn’t save the Brazilian depression release above.)  Step two would be to ensure that you clarify how big may be the leap from animal studies to human implications. Of course, the front office is worried that putting “mice” or caveats in the headlines won’t result in a high click rate. Or it won’t generate new research funding. Or it won’t help lure new superstar scientists. So other interests, besides the readers’ interests, explain why we get what we get every day.

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