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Treatment for Peanut Allergies Shows Promise

Rating

4 Star

Treatment for Peanut Allergies Shows Promise

Our Review Summary

This story on an experimental desensitization treatment for peanut allergies oversells the promise of the research and the importance of the studies.

As the ratings below show, the story is poorly sourced and buries a key warning about the treatment.

But its main problem is that the reporter lets the "good news" [that studies suggest a new regimen may be effective against a serious condition] linger far too long before getting to the "bad news" [the studies are unpublished, preliminary, small, brief and inconclusive].

The lede gets in trouble early when it says the treatment "raises the possibility of a cure for this potentially life-threatening condition." In the next paragraph it conveys a lead researcher’s assertion that a treatment "may be developed in two or three years."

Only later come the reminders that these are small pilot studies.

This is a common pattern in news reporting: Run with the promise, and let the caveats catch up by the end of the story. The result is that interested readers–in this case, parents of kids with peanut allergies–have their hopes raised and dashed within 350 words.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Discussing costs isn’t particulary relevant with this approach and at this early stage of research.

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

Satisfactory

The report includes sufficient detail about the studies’ methodology and outcomes to help readers [eventually] understand the small numbers of children involved and the basic findings.

The story states that "most" of the 33 patients in the first test appeared to have improved resistance to peanut allergens, that 5 could tolerate peanuts without reaction, and that 4 had to withdraw because they could not tolerate the treatment. 

The story reports that the second test split the 18 subjects into treatment and placebo groups, and described approximate outcomes for each group. 

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Satisfactory

In the last line, the story warns that the children in the studies, who were allergic to peanuts, were under close medical supervision and that "parents should not try the approach at home."

This is a satisfactory warning about potential harms. But it should have appeared earlier.  

The author should also have mentioned whether those in the study who "did not tolerate" the exposure treatment needed epinephrine or some other intervention to quell the allergic reaction.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The news story is based on two presentations of very early studies with small numbers of patients at a medical conference. This is a very low quality of evidence.

The report should have made plain from the top that the studies have not been published or peer-reviewed, and that the study groups were very small. 

It is not until paragraph 6 of a 10-paragraph story that we learn the study is a "pilot" and that the number of subjects in the two studies is just 33 and 18.

It is not until paragraph 8 that we learn "[f]ar more study is needed. . . ."

Given the story’s early discussion of a "cure" and a treatment within 2-3 years, the discussion of the quality of the evidence wasn’t strong enough nor early enough in the story.  

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease-mongering about the seriousness or incidence of these food allergies.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The only source quoted is Dr. Wesley Burks of Duke University Medical Center, one of the researchers who presented work at the meeting.

The reporter fails to disclose that Burks has financial relationships with a number of drug, food and device companies with an interest in allergies.

The reporter should have interviewed at least one additional source with deep knowledge of peanut allergies and no connection to the research. 

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The article states, correctly, that there are no approved treatments for food allergies.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story makes clear that this experimental treatment for peanut allergy is in the early stages of human research, and not available.

Ideally it would have made this plain earlier in the story. 

 

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The report explains that previous British studies of similar treatments have shown similar results. It also states that a U.S. based consortium is conducting studies as well.

The reader would not come away believing the treatment being tested is unique. 

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The New York Times article states, "'[N]early half of the 150 deaths attributed to food allergies in the United States each year are caused by peanut allergies,’ according to Duke University."

A Duke University press release includes this same sentence, with the exception of the words "in the United States."

This is a minor matter, hardly evidence that the NYT reporter is rewriting a handout. But it’s unsettling nonetheless. 

Total Score: 7 of 9 Satisfactory

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