The headline “Artificial sweetener may help treat aggressive cancers, study finds,” might lead readers to think that this is a report on some important clinical research. But those who are tempted enough to click the link will find little more than a recycled news release about a petri dish study involving cancer cells. Any “treatment” based on this research is probably years away from being tested in people, let alone being approved for widespread use.
This matters because any possible treatment for aggressive cancers could give hope to millions of people who suffer from such diseases and their friends and family.
The story noted that saccharin is readily available, but we’re not talking about using Sweet ‘N Low to treat cancer. Any drug developed based on this research would take a different form than the artificial sweetener, and most likely be very costly. How costly? The story does not hazard a guess. An accurate guess might not be possible given the early stage of the research, but then let’s make that’s clear. And if the research really is that preliminary, why tout it with a headline that says, “Artificial sweetener may help treat aggressive cancers, study finds.”
The story offered no data whatsoever that might have justified the headline. In addition, the story failed to note that changes seen in a laboratory may not necessarily be replicated when a saccharin-based drug is given to patients.
It allows one researcher to offer this optimistic take: “This result opens up the potential to develop a novel anti-cancer drug that is derived from a common condiment that could have a lasting impact on treating several cancers.” This is either self-promotional nonsense or extreme naivete.
The lede said that artificial sweeteners have been linked to cardiovascular disease and cancer. But again, we’re talking about a drug based on saccharin — not saccharin itself. It’s probably not possible to know what harms such a drug might cause, but then the story should have said so. It certainly wasn’t shy about predicting possible benefits.
The evidence, which appears to have been gleaned from lab work rather than from clinical trials, was not discussed in any meaningful way. The story says that “Researchers used X-ray crystallography to determine how saccharin binds to CA IX,” but it’s not clear what they found. There was no discussion about the perils of drawing patient care conclusions from lab work. Moreover, there was no mention that the story is based on an abstract given at a conference, and that the results have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The story failed to mention anything about cancer morbidity or mortality, but it did not exaggerate its incidence.
Though the story included two sources, neither could be considered independent, since both were involved with the study.
The story offers no detail about existing treatments for cancer, or how treatments in development may also be targeting CA IX.
The story notes that saccharin is a popular sugar substitute that is readily available, but it doesn’t give us any idea of how close we might be to testing a saccharin-based drug.
The story says that “Previous attempts to find an element that blocks CA IX without damaging other cells have been unsuccessful,” and that the new research “stemmed from a study from the University of Florence in Italy that suggested saccharin would selectively block the activity of CA IX.”
While it includes comments from a real interview with one of the researchers, the story contains passages that are lifted verbatim from this news release without alerting readers as to the source.
Here’s a news release quote from one of the researchers that’s recycled verbatim in the story:
“It never ceases to amaze me how a simple molecule, such as saccharin — something many people put in their coffee everyday — may have untapped uses, including as a possible lead compound to target aggressive cancers,” says Robert McKenna, Ph.D., who is at the University of Florida. “This result opens up the potential to develop a novel anti-cancer drug that is derived from a common condiment that could have a lasting impact on treating several cancers.”
We think this practice is misleading, because it implies that the reporter actually talked to someone, when all they did was cut and paste some text from the Internet.