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CNN avoids slimy claims about using frog peptides to kill flu viruses

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5 Star

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Researchers use frog mucus to fight the flu

Our Review Summary

frog peptide flu virus

Credit: Sanil George + Jessica Shartouny

Humans have long known that frogs come equipped with protective chemicals to maintain froggy health.  This story describes a study of a single peptide from the mucus of a frog from India that lays waste to the H1 subtype of the influenza A virus–at least in the laboratory.

The story does an admirable job of explaining how the peptide kills the virus, provides good contextual comments from independent sources, and repeatedly reminds readers that testing in humans is yet to be accomplished. While we generally think preclinical research is too early to be of much use to a wide audience, the details here make this less about a hapless “new study proves xyz” and more about the scientific process of finding new tools against the flu.

On the flip side, the story is not helped by the headline, which leaves the question of applicability to humans quite open.

 

Why This Matters

The risk of flu pandemics, however low, is now a permanent feature of the human landscape, and many worry about how to cope when a crisis outpaces the development of vaccines.  This story about basic research into the antiviral potency of peptides in frog mucus offers an interesting look at an approach that might—emphasis on “might”—become a viable strategy.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

This story describes basic research that has not even reached the human clinical test stage. Because it makes this clear and adds lots of backstopping so as to prevent readers from wondering if this is an available treatment, we’ll rate this N/A.

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

Satisfactory

This was a tough call. The story reports that the peptide killed all of the H1 versions of the influenza A virus that it encountered in laboratory settings. And the text sends up a cautionary flag early in the story that the peptide has not yet been tested in human beings. In fact, the next step appears to be testing in ferrets.

But, it doesn’t really say much about the mice research. How did they determine that it worked? Did it clear infections? We were somewhat unclear on that aspect of the story.

Again, though, because the story didn’t oversell the findings, we’re leaning toward Satisfactory.

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

Not Applicable

Given the early nature of the research–which the story makes clear is preliminary–we’ll rate this N/A.

Ideally, we’d like a statement to the effect that the safety is totally unknown. However the story does establish that future research might better pin down the harms, i.e., “If further studies show it has a low level of cytotoxicity…”

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

Satisfactory

This was a real strength of the story. It does not oversell the findings–making it clear that this research is preliminary and preclinical. The text does not just reflect on the study design—albeit briefly—but then gives much space to an explanation of how the peptide does its job. For cursory readers, such a long story may be of little interest, but those seeking to understand the research will be both rewarded and entertained.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

Flu viruses are ubiquitous and often dangerous. Seeking another line of defense to accompany vaccination and other drugs makes sense.

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

Satisfactory

The primary source is clearly linked to the study, and two other sources are identified as independent of the research. Although the story does not mention funding sources, a news release describing the research indicates that funding came from the university itself, not from external sources.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story would have benefited from information about how this possible antiviral treatment might fit in with other types of treatment. For example, the researchers note in the abstract of their report that vaccines may take too long to produce in pandemic situations, making antiviral treatments relevant.

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

Satisfactory

The story makes it very clear that research has been conducted only in mice and that much more work needs to be done before it can even be assessed in humans.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

As part of the explanation for how this peptide kills flu viruses, the story offers a brief history of the use of frogs (and, apparently, their peptides) to prevent illness in human beings. Sources then make clear that this study’s finding that a specific peptide seems to target only the H1 variants of influenza A is indeed novel.

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

Satisfactory

The reporter for the story has clearly gone into enterprise mode here, soliciting information from other sources and investing in substantial explanation of the peptide’s modus operandi.

Total Score: 7 of 8 Satisfactory

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