This release suffers from over-reach and obfuscation — a bad combination. The release cites some pre-clinical animal research at the University of Iowa that suggests that components of the spices oregano and thyme may represent a “cure” for cachexia, a wasting disease that affects cancer patients and others with debilitating diseases. Unfortunately, readers aren’t told that the research was in mice — not humans — until very late in the release. There’s no information on whether the research has been published, or met any other form of peer review. (When we asked to see the study, the media relations team at the university declined and told us the research hadn’t been published.) The spice compounds referred to aren’t named, nor are cost or potential harms addressed. The release doesn’t explain who funded the research or disclose that the university has applied for a patent on the compound. It doesn’t note that the researcher quoted in the release is listed as the inventor on the patent application and would likely stand to benefit financially from its commercialization. The release does note that a pharmaceutical firm has been licensed to market a drug based on the research.
Editor’s note: This news release raised serious questions about oversight of the University of Iowa’s research-related communications to the public. We blogged about those questions here but have yet to receive a satisfactory response from the university media relations team.
Update 8/24/17: A response received from the university, more than two weeks after the initial request, raises additional serious questions about the university’s process for promoting research, which critics termed “utterly irresponsible.” We wrote about it here.
Cachexia is a serious condition typified by chronic weight loss that can affect a patient’s nutritional status and ability to undergo or continue treatment. Striking those with chronic diseases, it weakens patients and in some cases can hasten their demise. If it could be thwarted by compounds from spices, that would represent a real boon. But this release — and the research it reports — does not provide readers with valid and adequate information. Unfortunately, it may play on the hopes of those afflicted with cachexia and their families, offering false hopes instead of new findings.
There is no mention of the costs for the compounds referred to in this release. Nor are the compounds themselves identified which might give some idea of the cost of acquiring them. The release suggests an over-the-counter drug was being developed but no information was provided on what the cost might be to patients.
Given that this is pre-clinical research, we have no idea about what the process of isolating the active compounds would be, which would impact cost.
The release states that, “compounds in thyme and oregano have demonstrated a greater than 37 percent increase in exercise tolerance and a 15 percent increase in muscle mass of certain body muscles.” But there is no information as to how these measurements were acquired, or to which of the “certain body muscles” they were referring. And again, there is no mention of what these compounds actually were. Simply throwing out some percentages without providing an adequate context isn’t helpful for readers.
If the release had transparently claimed that the benefits listed above applied to the “sedentary mice” finally mentioned at the end of the release, we’d still rate this criteria as Not Satisfactory. The mice were not noted to have cancer, COPD, heart failure, and other conditions which brought about wasting sickness. The findings, as such, are specific to non-human species without any of the conditions that are purported to be creating the setting for wasting.
There is no mention of harms from these mysterious, unnamed compounds. And without their identification, readers are left clueless about any risks that might be involved. The inference is that since oregano and thyme are common, edible spices that they would present no harms once prepared in over-the counter products.
Where to begin? The cardinal error in this release lies with the fact that it isn’t until the sixth paragraph out of eight paragraphs that we learn the research was done in mice, not humans. The first two paragraphs of the release refer to cachexia, a condition in humans, suggesting to readers that this is what the research was about. The release also says that the experiments were done in “sedentary mice” which may or may not have been an adequate and appropriate animal model for studying this human illness. Readers have no way of knowing, based on the information in the release.
Additionally, there is no information in the release revealing where — or if — it was published in a peer-reviewed journal, or presented at a scientific meeting, two standard ways that research institutions insure readers that the science is above board and open to scrutiny. (An email to the media relations staff confirmed that the study hasn’t been published and they declined to provide any further information about the study.) The quoted source in the story, one of the researchers, claims the “discovery was a serendipitous finding,” which raises a red flag, suggesting it might be merely an observation and not a conclusion based on experiments. The researchers do offer a theory as to how this alleged anti-cachexia effect might work, but that’s really just conjecture at this point.
We’ll give the release the benefit of the doubt in this category. Cachexia often accompanies serious diseases — including cancer — and effective treatments are needed. But suggesting that an over-the-counter drug, based on commonly used spices tested only in mice, might alleviate this challenging condition seems to be misleading readers hoping for simple answers.
There is no mention in the release of who funded this research, nor is there a journal paper which we could find that might offer that information. The release does say that the “discovery” has been licensed to a pharmaceutical firm that plans on developing an over-the-counter drug, and quotes a company official praising the work. There is no information that suggests the researchers are free from any potential conflicts of interest, with that company or other firms.
A search of the Google Patents database shows that the lead investigator and the University of Iowa Research Foundation have applied for a patent for the compound.
The final paragraph of the release states that, “The treatment of cachexia just doesn’t exist,” but that’s not the case. The medication megase is used in HIV related wasting and it’s often offered to cancer patients as well. Some other interventions used to reduce the effects of cachexia include resistance exercise and a high-protein diet. Psychological interventions are often used, as are other approaches which are aimed at both the cachexia and the underlying disease which causes it.
We’ll give the release a Satisfactory in this category since it states that a company has been licensed to develop a drug based on this research, and therefore readers know that it isn’t available yet.
If combating cachexia were as simple as using compounds from ordinary spices, then this would be adequately novel. But neither the release nor the research as yet are available tend to bear that out. The work is done in animals, not humans. The compounds are not identified. And the explanation of benefits from those compounds is inadequate for readers to have confidence in these claims.
The release uses the word “cure” in the headline, which is unjustified.