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Test May Reveal Early Signs of Emphysema

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Test May Reveal Early Signs of Emphysema

Our Review Summary

This story repeats a vague promise contained in a journal news release that a CT scan could provide smokers with an earlier warning of emphysema risk. The actual research article makes no such claims of clinical usefulness. Indeed, the article and the news from the researcher’s university both emphasize that the point of this work is to offer clues to the underlying mechanism of smoking-related emphysema, to aid research into genetic variations that may be linked to lung disease risk, and to help develop new treatments by identifying and tracking subtle changes in lung blood flow.

Not only does the research itself not discuss providing smokers with warnings, it is not clear how such “warnings” would be more useful than the blanket advice to smokers that they should quit. Indeed, by suggesting the test could identify smokers who are less likely to develop emphysema, it could be that this sort of test would actually make some smoker more complacent, leaving them vulnerable to heart disease, stroke and other tobacco-related harms that are outside the scope of this “test.”

The story also fails to mention that CT scans produce a small, but real, increase in the risk of cancer.

 

Why This Matters

It’s important to report on basic research.  But it is potentially misleading to emphasize that an approach "may show…may provide an early warning…could help determine who’s most at risk" without emphasizing the very early stage of research and the unknowns about potential clinical usefulness.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

No costs are mentioned. Normally a story on basic research story would not be expected to provide cost information, but since the story implied the test might be useful to smokers, it should have addressed cost.

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

Not Satisfactory

Again, while the story does not explicitly point to any clear benefits, it implies that there is some value to smokers. The story repeats a phrase from a journal news release that results from this sort of test “may provide an early warning for smokers.” However, it does not explain what benefit there would be in such a warning. After all, no smoker needs a CT scan to learn that smoking is harmful.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story makes no mention of the radiation risk of CT scanning or other potential harms of tests that have not been evaluated in clinical settings.

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

Not Satisfactory

Although the story does not misstate the details of the study, including the small number of participants and that the findings were limited to detecting subtle differences in blood flow, the overall tone of the story and the mention of “an early warning for smokers” create the incorrect impression that the research has clinical application.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Applicable

If anything, this story minimizes the health risks of smoking. By focusing on the possible identification of smokers at increased risk of developing emphysema, it implies that other smokers are less likely to be harmed by tobacco smoke. The research merely indicates that there may be differences between individuals in terms of how their lungs react to smoke damage. It does not indicate that some people can smoke without harming their health.

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

Not Satisfactory

No independent source. The story did not mention that two of the researchers own a company that is commercializing lung imaging software, even though this information was disclosed in both the university and journal news releases.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

No alternatives are mentioned.

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

Not Satisfactory

There was no discussion of how widespread is the availability of the "new type of multidetector row CT (MDCT) scan."  Is it experimental?  Is it in widespread use?  How widespread?  

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story didn’t explain the utility/novelty of this test in comparison with the currently available tests for detecting emphysema. High resolution CT scans and pulmonary function tests are already used for this purpose.  How does MDCT blood flow compare with those?

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

Not Applicable

It cannot be determined whether the reporter used any source other than the news release from the University of Iowa (http://news-releases.uiowa.edu/2010/april/040610newtest-emphysema.html) or the release from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (http://www.pnas.org/site/misc/current.shtml#detection)

Total Score: 0 of 8 Satisfactory

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