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Too soon to claim nanoparticles loaded with curcumin are a weapon against childhood cancer

Nanoparticles loaded with component of common spice kill cancer cells

Our Review Summary

This University of Central Florida news release covers a study published in the journal Nanoscale, which found that curcumin-loaded nanoparticles kill neuroblastoma tumor cells in cell culture (in test tubes or petri dishes). Curcumin is a bright yellow compound found in the spice tumeric.

The news release doesn’t disclose any harms and quantitative data to back up its claims and, instead, uses only broad, ambiguous language when describing the treatment’s benefits. For example, researchers found that these molecules may induce “substantial” cell death in neuroblastoma cells without being toxic to healthy cells. The study’s limitations should have been emphasized — namely, that it’s early pre-clinical research with experiments only conducted in undefined cell lines.

In addition, research with curcumin-loaded nanoparticles isn’t exactly new. In 2012, a couple of studies looked at the molecule’s effects, including its toxicity, on neuroblastoma cells.

 

Why This Matters

Many news releases cover research that is in its pre-clinical phases. This is fair game, of course, but we then expect these reports to caution readers on the treatment’s applicability to clinical medicine. In other words, treatments that are successful in cell lines and animal models usually do not translate to effective clinical outcomes. Furthermore, it also takes years, maybe decades, before a treatment is even ready for clinical trials — a process often referred to as “from bench to bedside.”

To avoid giving patients false hope, news releases need to disclose the early nature of the research high up in the release as well as be more explicit in detailing the treatment’s development and timeline.

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

This news release is about a pre-clinical study that looked at the effects of cerium oxide nanoparticles and curcumin in cell culture. It will be a while before this type of technology is studied in living patients.

We rate this one Not Applicable.

We caution news release writers that if it’s not too early to talk glowingly about the potential life-saving benefits of an intervention in a news release, it’s not too early to give some attention to the costs. However, this research is clearly far too preliminary to make such projections.

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

Not Satisfactory

The news release does not provide any data to support its claims. Instead, sweeping phrases are used to describe the benefits of curcumin-loaded nanoparticles: “This formulation included substantial cell death in neuroblastoma cells while producing no or only minor toxicity in healthy cells.”

Moreover, “nano-therapeutic treatments showed a more pronounced effect” in cell lines of a high-risk form of neuroblastoma, the news release states. No other benefit data are given.

We like to see news releases giving a quantitative estimate of the potential benefit using numbers, instead of using broad, ambiguous terms like “substantial,” “minor” and “more pronounced.” Therefore, we give it a Not Satisfactory rating here.

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

Not Satisfactory

No harms are mentioned in the news release. Some scientists are concerned that nanotechnology may have toxic effects on the body, especially the lungs.

Depending on the nanotechnology, other organs may also be at a risk for damage. In particular, some nanoparticles may affect the endocrine system, leading to changes in hormone levels, sexual characteristics, reproduction and development.

The news release talks only about the benefits of nanoscience research without any description of its potential harms. Consequently, we give it a Not Satisfactory rating.

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

Not Satisfactory

We wish the news release emphasized the fact that this research was in its early pre-clinical stages. This means it will take at least another 10 to 12 years before this technology is tested in humans, if it even makes it that far.

Testing treatments in cell culture is usually the first step along the research pipeline. If these experiments are successful, researchers then try the technology in living organisms — like mice, rats and rabbits.

It’s important to remember that cells in culture behave very differently than cells in a living organism. And what works in animal models often is not effective when tested in humans, perhaps due to differences in genetics, environmental conditions and physiology. In a physician commentary entitled “The Failing Animal Research Paradigm for Human Disease,” it quotes a former National Cancer Institute director as saying, “We have cured mice of cancer for decades—and it simply didn’t work in humans.”

In this study, researchers worked with cell lines containing “a high-risk form of neuroblastoma.” We don’t even know what type of cell lines they were. Were they derived from humans? Or mice?

Although the news release talks about future research plans in animal models, we feel it could have been more explicit in pointing out its pre-clinical phase higher up in the report, like in the headline or first sentence. As a result, we give it a Not Satisfactory rating here.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There is no disease mongering in this news release.

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

Satisfactory

The news release discloses the study’s funding sources, which include the Nemours Foundation and the regional economic development initiative of the Florida High Tech Corridor.

We were not able to find any potential conflicts of interests.

We rate this one Satisfactory.

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

Not Satisfactory

The news release does not discuss any existing alternatives to treat neuroblastoma. Conventional therapy includes chemotherapy for those with advanced-stage neuroblastoma. Commonly used agents include cisplatin, doxorubicin, cyclophosphamide and epipodophyllotoxins. For those with early-stage neuroblastoma, surgery is often an option.

Some patients are also given adrenocortical hormone to treat their symptoms.

We give the news release a Not Satisfactory rating here.

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

Satisfactory

The beginning of the news release makes it sound like this technology is available at your local hospital. Later in the report, however, the news release makes it clear that this study was conducted in cell lines in a laboratory. Researchers hope to expand this research to animal models and direct the curcumin nanoparticles to tumor sites, the news release adds.

We feel this is enough for a Satisfactory rating.

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

Not Satisfactory

Although the news release makes it sound as if this research is completely novel, using curcumin-loaded nanoparticles to treat neuroblastoma is not exactly new. In fact, researchers from Nemours and UCF only confirmed (not found, as the news release claims) that nanoparticles can be used to deliver curcumin to tumor sites.

In 2012, an international team of researchers looked at how curcumin-containing nanoparticles induced cell death in neuroblastoma cells in vitro. Another study from 2012 looked at the toxicity of curcumin-loaded nanoparticles.

Since none of this was mentioned in the news release, we give it a Not Satisfactory rating here.

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

Satisfactory

The news release does not include include unjustifiable, sensational language.

Total Score: 4 of 9 Satisfactory

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