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Johns Hopkins prematurely heralds a ‘promising diagnostic tool’ for Alzheimer’s

Rating

3 Star

Johns Hopkins team identifies promising diagnostic tool for Alzheimer's disease

Our Review Summary

The release focuses on two papers that discuss early research into developing a technique for identifying people who will develop neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. The papers were published in the December issue of the Journal of Nuclear Medicine.

Specifically, the papers evaluated “tracer” molecules that might be useful for identifying “tau tangles” — proteins in the brain that occur in patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

The release does a good job of describing the research, but does not address costs, potential harms, or the potential accuracy of diagnostic tests that might be developed based on these tracer molecules. Also, we think the headline jumps the gun in calling this a “promising diagnostic tool.”

 

Why This Matters

New diagnostic tools that allow medical practitioners to track the development of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia may have significant effects on future research into treatment. However, news releases should caution that there’s a big leap from identifying particular tracers to a developing a useful diagnostic tool.

Criteria

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The benefit here would be the accurate diagnosis of tau protein tangles in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. There is no quantification of findings in this regard. Instead, the release uses general language, such as the statement that one of the studies “generated good and reproducible results.”

Also, the news release could have been clearer that no diagnostic tool has been developed, as the few people tested with heavy tau tangle loads already were known to have Alzheimer’s.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Harms aren’t discussed. Are there any risks associated with injecting these molecular markers into a study participant or patient? Even if there aren’t, that in itself is worth addressing. The release also doesn’t address two other potential harms (which are common to most, if not all, diagnostics): the failure to identify someone who has Alzheimer’s and the “false positive” misdiagnosis of people who do not have Alzheimer’s. This is the difference between “sensitivity” and “specificity.” Missing someone who has Alzheimer’s is problematic. And being told that one has a disease that one does not actually have can also have ramifications for future healthcare, with consequences both physical and financial.

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

The release does a good job of describing the work and the design of the studies covered by the two journal articles. The release also provides background context for the studies, which is useful.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering here.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The release notes the funding source for the research and addresses conflicts of interest.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The release accurately notes that there is no definitive diagnostic tool for Alzheimer’s disease other than an autopsy of the brain. It also refers to a “currently used” tau tracer.

We wish it had been clearer that the research being described is not the only work being done in this area. For example, this 2015 paper in the journal Alzheimer’s and Dementia describes a number of innovative approaches being explored in this field.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The release does not make clear that this work is still far removed from widespread clinical application.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The background and context provided in the release do a good job of making clear what sets the work apart.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Satisfactory

For the most part, the release does not cross the line in its use of language. However, we think it’s premature to call this a “promising diagnostic tool,” as the headline does.

Total Score: 6 of 10 Satisfactory

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