The story focuses on a recent journal article that reported finding higher levels of the protein CCL11 in individuals who were posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) than was found in healthy individuals or in those who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed after an individual has died, and this finding is presented as a first step toward developing a diagnostic tool for CTE that can be used while patients are still alive.
This is a very preliminary basic science research study and probably not worth publicizing to a general audience. As the story explains, no one really knows how relevant this finding is yet, and if it will lead to anything clinicians can use. The story at least makes that very clear, and tapped an independent source to provide context.
CTE has been a huge news topic lately because of its association with professional football players. For this reason, research related to CTE is likely to get a lot of attention from readers. This one certainly did, garnering coverage from several large news media organizations (the Los Angeles Times, for example, and the New York Post (which hailed the finding “monumental”). The totality of all this coverage on a preliminary finding could leave readers with the impression the research is closer to clinical use than it really is.
The relevant research finding is so far removed from a clinical diagnostic tool — and the story makes that clear — that it’s tough to expect much from the story in regard to cost.
The story discusses benefits here:
The paper evaluated the brains of 23 deceased football players with CTE, and compared them to the brains of 50 deceased people diagnosed with Alzhiemer’s disease and the brains of 18 deceased non-athletes. When compared to the brains without CTE, researchers found those brains with CTE had significantly higher amounts of CCL11, even when compared to those brains with Alzheimer’s, another degenerative brain disease. Furthermore, they found that the more years someone played football, the higher amount of the protein.
How much higher was the protein, in numerical terms? And how do they know it’s significant–that the higher level means anything? All lab values have normal ranges–how do they know if these measurements were abnormal? Instead of providing insight on this, the story explains that it’s really too early to tell if any of this means anything valuable. So why report on it now?
If a story is going to speculate about the potential clinical benefits of a new research finding (and this one does), the story should also discuss the harms. It’s worth pointing out, for example, that any test such as this would produce false-positive and false-negative results. Such results could cause unnecessary concern and anxiety and perhaps the loss of a lucrative career — or false reassurance that nothing is wrong when a degenerative process is underway.
The story discusses the number of people involved in the study, their different conditions, and why each group is relevant. However, the story would have been stronger if it had noted that the samples used in the study were from the brain and cerebrospinal fluid of individuals. That would better explain why researchers don’t know if the relevant protein can be found in the blood. As it is, the story tells readers that higher levels of CCL11 were found — but not where. The story also makes it clear that there’s a lot more work that needs to be done.
No disease mongering here.
The story does incorporate input from one independent source — who raised valuable points about the limitations of this discovery and the amount of work that remains to be done. There do not appear to be any conflicts of interest.
The story makes it clear that there is no method for diagnosing this brain disorder in living people, and it mentions that other biomarkers are being tested.
However, the information was relayed in a somewhat confusing way. The story notes that a diagnostic approach focusing on CCL11 may only be “one part of a larger process.” It then quotes a researcher from the study as saying: “This may be one of the abnormalities [of the disease], but it may take 2-3 to be useful to diagnose CTE.” The story then refers to other studies that have attempted to identify other means of diagnosing CTE in living patients. However, it offers little information on those other diagnostic tools. Presumably, they have significant limitations since we are still unable to diagnose CTE in the living. But perhaps other biomarkers have been found, but not yet incorporated into a reliable diagnostic tool. Either way, we wish that had been more clear — as well as the relevance of these previous studies to the CCL11 research.
Once readers get past the first couple paragraphs, the story makes clear that this research is far removed from clinical applications.
The story quotes one of the researchers involved in the work as saying “This is something new.” What is new is, apparently, the discovery that CCL11 levels are correlated to CTE. Whether other biomarkers have been identified (as discussed above, under “Compare Alternatives”) but not yet incorporated into diagnostic tools is not clear from the story.
Because the story uses a word-for-word quote by one of the researchers from the news release — without disclosing the quote came from a news release — the story rates Not Satisfactory on this criterion.