This news release covers a study that tested whether a tropical plant extract improves fibromyalgia symptoms in rats.
It says the study of soursop — also known as graviola or guanabana — was published, but doesn’t say where. We couldn’t find it.
The release feeds rampant misinformation about this plant, falsely announcing that soursop extract is a remedy for chronic pain, anxiety and depression associated with fibromyalgia and can improve the lives of patients with that very common condition. Not until two-thirds of the way into the text do we learn those claims are based on a rat study.
There’s no specific data about the findings, no caution about harms, and no mention that benefits found in animal studies seldom translate to humans.
Nor does it mention the plant’s widespread availability — a situation we find worrisome given unproven medical claims that glut the internet.
In sum, this one left us with a very bad taste in our mouths.
Fibromyalgia can be difficult to treat effectively. The condition is not uncommon, and although evidence-based treatment is available, the goal is symptom management. Many patients are interested in “natural remedies” to avoid long-term reliance on prescription medicines.
But news releases based on animal studies are obligated to alert these interested readers that positive findings don’t yet apply to humans.
We hold not only the university responsible for this news release, but the American Association for the Advancement of Science, whose EurekAlert! news release service disseminates releases for a fee, but does not enforce standards that would prevent such weak releases from being disseminated worldwide by their service. We’ve written in more depth about this troubling policy in the past.
There’s no discussion of costs. We found soursop leaves online in various forms — including a liquid extract — for less than $20.
There’s no attempt to give readers a sense of the magnitude of benefit in humans — or even in the rat group that was studied. We couldn’t find the study online, and the news release doesn’t provide a citation.
Unconscionably, there’s no mention of harms in the release which could mislead people into thinking it’s safe. The published study does caution that “more toxicity assays and clinical trials would be necessary to establish optimal and safe doses of consumption on the application of these medicinal plants.” That should have been highlighted in the release.
According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, substances derived from soursop plant “can damage nerve cells and cause neurological side effects similar to Parkinson’s disease. In addition, some animal studies suggest long-term use may increase the risk of other neurological diseases.” Use of the plant “may also affect nuclear imaging because it has been shown to decrease the uptake of radiopharmaceuticals used in such procedures.”
In addition, it’s possible people reading only this news release might be encouraged to forego proven treatments to try this supplement.
As we said earlier, the news release doesn’t alert readers until the fourth of its six paragraphs that the study was carried out in rats, not people.
It does disclose that the study was carried out over one month using 60 five-week old female rats, divided into six groups that were fed “a standard diet supplement” with different quantities of the plant. It also said the next step is to test it in patients “to corroborate the extract’s activity and establish the safe and effective dose in humans.”
That language brushes over the fact that animal studies seldom predict results in human trials.
The news release also puffs up this plant as “scientifically validated in pre-clinical tests” for inflammation, pain, infections, diabetes and cancer. But that could mislead some readers.
According to Memorial Sloan Kettering, lab studies indicate the plant is effective against cancer cells and the herpes virus and might fight infections. However, it hasn’t been studied in humans for any of those purposes.
Finally, as we said earlier, it’s concerning that the news release doesn’t give a citation for this study, which it says has been published.
There’s no disease-mongering, but nor does the release inform readers how many people have fibromyalgia. In the U.S., it’s estimated to affect about 2% of the adult population, or about 4 million people.
There’s no information on who funded this research.
There’s no mention of medications (such as antidepressants and drugs for neurologic conditions), lifestyle interventions, and counseling that can treat fibromyalgia symptoms like pain, sleep problems, fatigue, and mental distress.
The news release doesn’t say so, but this plant is widely available as tea, dried leaves, and extract.
The use of soursop for fibromyalgia seems like a novel area of study. But we couldn’t find any research relating to it on PubMed.
The headline is inaccurate and misleading. You can’t claim a benefit before a treatment has been tested in humans.
The headline and subhead announce:
‘Extract from soursop leaves can prevent the symptoms of fibromyalgia’.
‘Scientists from the University of Seville indicate that it can lessen the chronic pain, anxiety and depression that accompany this disease.’
But you have to read two-thirds of the way down to learn it’s only been studied in rats.