This story describes the findings of a study published in Nature that involved a new approach to correcting congenital cataracts in infants using the patient’s own stem cells to grow new lenses in the eye, versus the more standard approach of using artificial lenses.he story had a lot going for it compared with some less thorough competing stories (see here and here), especially when discussing important caveats about the study’s limitations. However, the piece would have been stronger if it had better quantified the results of the study: How did the researchers measure the success of this approach? We also wanted to see more information about the study design itself: How many patients were studied? And for how long? Finally, the story quickly turned to examining whether this approach might be used among older adults who have conventional cataracts–even though congenital cataracts are a very different disease process, and the current study applied to infants only.
While not a common eye disease, congenital cataracts can be devastating to a child’s vision and normal development. The current treatment option–surgery and insertion of artificial lenses–usually restores vision, but it often requires multiple surgeries as the child grows. A newer, less disruptive measure is merited. And because it’s temping to ponder if this treatment could potentially be used one day in older adults with cataracts–which affects about 24 million Americans– it’s important that the media accurately describes the research, and avoids inappropriate speculation or conflating two different disease processes.
The story doesn’t discuss costs for this new approach. One web source points to an average cost of $3,400 per eye for conventional cataract surgery, although the costs can be considerably less under some insurance plans. The story does not make clear if this procedure would be similarly priced.
The story states the new procedure “restored vision in babies for the first time” but doesn’t describe any quantified benefits of this newer method. At the end of the story, we are told the researchers claimed a “100 percent” success rate three months after surgery. However, that’s not specific enough: Readers should be informed of how the researchers measured success–what were the outcomes they measured?–especially in such a young patient group where vision testing is tricky.
The story doesn’t discuss short- or long-term harms that may arise from this new approach. It may be too soon for researchers to determine potential long-range harms from this approach, but saying that would have offered readers some perspective.
The story explains that the study included a small number of infant patients (12) with a condition that differs from routine adult cataracts. The story did a good job of letting us know the study had some key limitations, primarily its short duration. As one source said, “this study wasn’t long enough. They [cataracts] may come back.”
Ideally, the story would have specifically told us the length of time (six months), which helps readers better understand the need for more research with a larger pool of patients followed over a longer timeframe. It also should have been made clear if the study was randomized and included a control group.
No, this story did not cross over into disease-mongering. It did a good job of explaining why it’s important to treat congenital cataracts.
We were pleased to see multiple independent sources interviewed for this story. Seeking out multiple viewpoints can often surface new details about the illness or field of study, and place it in the context of wider research efforts and the typical patient experience.
The story does a good job of describing conventional cataract surgery as the main alternative to this new procedure.
The story includes several statements by the researchers saying that larger studies are needed as well as a longer follow-up period in patients before the success with this research is confirmed, which should give the average reader and understanding that this approach is not available at this time. A quote from one of the researchers also lets us know they hope to bring this surgery to the public within four to five years.
The story says the study is the first to use the body’s own stem cells to regrow lenses in the eyes of babies with congenital conditions. This is enough to establish the novelty of the procedure. It also alludes to a possible use of the procedure in older adults, although it is cautious in that suggestion.
The story did leave us curious about the technique in general and we would have welcomed a sentence or two about this emerging field of science. Are there similar procedures where the patient’s own stem cells repopulate damaged or missing tissue? What inspired the researchers to study?
Given the multitude of independent sources, this story doesn’t appear to rely on a news release.