In 1992, a French researcher coined the term "French Paradox" to describe the seemingly contradictory idea that while the French eat much fattier foods, they have a relatively low incidence of heart disease. It was immediately speculated that the French consumption of wine, particularly red wine, could explain this discrepancy. However, many other factors could be related to this difference, such as the consumption of unsaturated fats, higher quantities of fish, smaller portions, and other lifestyle factors such as more physical activity and lower stress.
But this did not stop researchers from aggressively pursuing the red wine angle. This fall Sitris, a company in Cambridge, MA, was sold to GlaxoSmithKline for $750 million on the red wine premise. Scientists at Sitris are trying to develop a pill with highly concentrated levels of reservatrol, a compound naturally found in red wine. These scientists are also master marketers and have made many claims that their pill can cure diabetes and even lengthen life, although to date their only evidence comes from studies done on yeast and mice.
This story has great entertainment value but provides very little substance for the consumer. It fails to meet many of our criteria for health news reporting. It is particularly egregious in how it describes the evidence to support the use of the pill. The story mentions only positive results from the mice trials but does not talk about the negative results. Although the story mentions that trials in yeast and mice are a long way away from it working in humans, it could have done more to emphasize this point.
Furthermore, it quotes no sources who have no personal or financial stake in how the pill is perceived. The story does a disservice by not quoting other experts who could have provided some badly needed perspective. Finally, it grossly overstates the potential benefits of the pill. The story does a lot of speculating about the number of years of life extension possible, without any basis to back up these claims. The story also has the audacity to imply that somehow this pill will help us have a better death – that with this pill people will die "quietly in their sleep." As if anything could have that kind of control over how we die!
The story does not speculate on the cost of the drug, which could be substantial. If it’s not too early to speculate about all the potential benefits of this drug (how we could all be taking it soon and how it could prevent the diseases of aging) then it’s not too early to speculate about costs.
The story does a lot of speculating about the number of years of life extension possible, without any basis to back up these claims. The story also has the audacity to imply that somehow this pill will help us have a better death – that with this pill people will die "quietly in their sleep". As if anything could have that kind of control over how we die!
The story does not mention any harms, potential or known.
The story does not adequately describe the strength of the available evidence. The story mentions only positive results from the mice trials but does not talk about the negative results. Although the story mentions that trials in yeast and mice are a long way away from evidence of efficacy in humans, it could have done more to emphasize this point. And even when the point was made about the poor track record of drugs that look good in mice but fail in humans, that point was immediately followed by a cheerleading note about the "speed and results" they’ve generated.
The intro to the story suggests that "we all may soon be taking a pill that could give us an extra decade or two of healthy old age." We understand that they want to keep us tuned in with flashy intros. But there are many people who do not embrace the "pill for every ill" mentality and, indeed, will predictably NOT be among the predicted universe of people who would pop such a pill even if it did pan out – which is a long way away to say the very least – not "soon" as promised.
The story also stated that "The pill … could prevent the diseases of aging, like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, even cancer." Perhaps. It may also be shown to be unable to do so. This is wild hyperbole that just isn’t necessary or warranted. Stick to what’s known now and let the future unfold as it does.
The story only quotes individuals or researchers who are heavily invested in the claims made, both financially and with their personal involvement. The story does a disservice by not quoting other experts who could have provided some badly needed perspective.
The story mentions calorie restriction as the other way to prevent aging and mentions exercise. The story should have done more to discuss these options. Instead, it practically dismisses them as difficult and ineffective. Story excerpt: "But if the scientists at Sirtris are on the right track, it could mean forget dieting, forget the sweaty business of working out – just pop a pill and you are in guilt-free couch potato paradise."
Here’s an excerpt of the story taken from the CBS website:
But the question that most of us want answered is: when do we get this pill?
"I would say five years to be conservative that this’ll happen within our lifetimes. I’m fairly certain about that," Sinclair says.
Sinclair is one of the co-founders of the company working on the drug. His 5-year estimate should have been checked with at least one independent source for comment. Also, note how that comment – as transcribed by CBS – makes no sense.
The idea that there is something protective in red wine is not a new one. For at least 15 years, scientists have discussed the "French Paradox", particularly when it comes to heart disease. However, the story adequately represents the novelty of potentially discovering the "active agent" in the red wine.
There is no way to know if the story relied on a press release.