This BuzzFeed News story reports on early-stage research into an experimental blood test that aims to predict whether or not a pregnancy is at risk for premature birth. To determine that risk, the test looks for specific pieces of RNA generated by the baby that migrate into a mother’s bloodstream and which are associated with preterm deliveries. The story offers a short, readable, un-hyped, and eminently useful summary of the research, and it offers several comparisons to the standard alternative, which is an ultrasound scan. The story would have benefited from an outside expert weighing on the study and its potential ramifications and — more importantly — the potential harms of a false-positive test, which are not insignificant.
According to the CDC, preterm birth affects about one in every 10 infants born in the US. Significant advances to lower preterm birth rates are certainly newsworthy–but this is an idea that’s been tested and failed before (see novelty, below) and readers need to know that.
Experimental health tests don’t have public price tags. However, this story gives readers a rare and helpful ballpark estimate, and one that compares it to an alternative (ultrasound): “It might be tens or hundreds of dollars, rather than thousands,” a study author told BuzzFeed.
The story lists out many of the details about what the researchers measured, and how those results compare to the current standard assessment tools, such as ultrasound.
Readers don’t get a sense of what harms a false-positive test might expose a mother and her child too, and the rate here (nearly 17%) is rather high. Based on studies of the alternative test method — i.e. ultrasound — the risks of false-positive test/misdiagnosis include high stress and anxiety, depression, expensive and unnecessary treatments, and other possible harms. (The most common interventions for increased risk of preterm birth include progesterone supplements and bedrest.)
For a story targeting the general public, all of our skeptical itches are scratched in this criterion. We’re told in fairly plain English how the tests works to pick up genetic material, and that it’s already used by other blood tests. We also get a short synopsis of the study’s limitations, with the story describing how it was small (with 38 women) and didn’t include ethnicities other than white or black. Finally, some rare yet illustrative numbers on efficacy are provided: false-positive results (3 in 18 pregnancies were supposedly at risk but became full-term) and false-positive results (4 in 5 did become at-risk preterm pregnancies). These types of details stated in plain language really help readers make sense of an otherwise complex study.
The story describes some scary risks related to preterm deliveries, but nothing unwarranted to establish why a test for potential preterm deliveries might be important.
We don’t get a crucial outside perspective on the study; the only source named in the story is one of the lead authors. On the plus side, the story is very thorough given its short length, and it offers a blunt if not skeptical summary on the research. It also helps that we’re told the study was funded by the March of Dimes and “other nonprofit sources,” and that the authors have applied to patent the blood test, implying they stand to profit from its approval and widespread use.
BuzzFeed’s story establishes early on that ultrasound tests are the go-to method for determining pregnancies that are at-risk for preterm delivery, among other complications. It also gives the accuracy of that test as a measure (48%) and compares it to the experimental test’s accuracy (45%).
The story is clear about the test’s availability in above-the-fold copy, stating it “is still experimental and not yet available outside of a research lab.” There’s even a reference to it being experimental in the story summary. (But why not include “experimental” in the headline, too?)
The story references other unnamed blood tests that use cfRNA, though it clinches the novelty of the experimental preterm pregnancy test through an anecdote from one of the researchers.
However, the story does not comment on other biomarkers (blood tests to detect factors correlated with preterm birth). As context, there have been many other biomarkers studied that have not proven to have clinical utility. Over 72 studies of biomarkers involving almost 90,000 women were examined in a 2011 review, which concluded that none, alone or in combination, were clinically useful to predict spontaneous preterm birth in asymptomatic women. There is much more work to be done to establish whether this new test performs well, and readers need that critical context.
We didn’t detect any obvious signs of copy/pasting claims, researcher quotes, etc.