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Read Original Story

LA Times strikes the right balance by reporting evenly on both harms and benefits of ‘magic mushrooms’ for cancer patients

Rating

4 Star

Ingredient in magic mushrooms is shown to ease anxiety and depression in cancer patients in one dose

Our Review Summary

Psilocybe cubensis, magic mushroomsThe story focuses on two recent studies that find a single application of the hallucinogen psilocybin is effective at providing meaningful relief to cancer patients suffering from severe depression or anxiety. The studies were published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, and can be found here and here.

In some ways, the story is thorough, addressing potential side effects and conflicts of interest very well. The story discusses the potential benefits in depth, which is good, but fails to quantify those benefits — which is problematic. The story also does a good job of placing the work in context, highlighting the increasing profile of research into the use of hallucinogens as therapeutic tools for mental health problems. However, the story would have been even stronger if it had discussed the existing literature on the use of psilocybin to address anxiety in cancer patients.

We also reviewed two news releases related to the research:

 

Why This Matters

Depression and other mental health struggles are common and significant among people with cancer, especially terminal cancer. This makes it especially important for reporters to write responsibly about studies like those discussed in this story. You want to give readers enough information to help them make informed decisions. You don’t want to raise false hopes, or sensationalize the work. Overall, this story does a nice job of handling a delicate subject well.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Given that this is an illegal substance banned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, cost as a therapeutic would be difficult to ascertain. We liked that the story took pains to explain that approval of this drug faces many hurdles.

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

Not Satisfactory

This is a tough one. While the story tells us what percentage of patients benefited from treatment, it does not, in fact, quantify the extent of those benefits–which is precisely what this category is designed to assess. However, the story does do a good–and thorough–job of describing the benefits in qualitative terms.

That said, if the story had only chosen one or two examples of changes in the standardized measures of depression or anxiety, this would have received an enthusiastic “Satisfactory” rating. One strong word of caution though: The story cites one source as saying that psilocybin may one day be used to treat a wide range of mental health issues ranging from drug addiction to obsessive-compulsive disorder. The story offers no evidence to support these claims, which were made by a source associated with an organization that exists specifically to promote research on hallucinogens. Substantial claims require substantial evidence. The story would have been much stronger if it had eliminated the unsubstantiated remarks from the source — particularly since they had no bearing on the subject of the story.

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

Satisfactory

The story addresses this issue thoroughly. Well done.

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

Satisfactory

The story does a good job of both describing the design of the studies and explaining why the study design is relevant. For example, the story notes: “But both [studies] were considered to be double-blind placebo trials — the gold-standard of medical research in which subjects are left to guess whether they have gotten the active study drug or an inactive lookalike.” This is the sort of thing we like to see.

However, we did want to note that in the NYU study, researchers did state in the limitations section that there was “limited blinding” — how did that possibly affect the outcomes?

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering here.

However, the story should have been more cautious about claims of benefit for conditions ranging far beyond the scope of the research at hand, which focused on mental health problems among people with advanced cancer.

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

Satisfactory

The story clearly states who funded the studies, and what that organization’s long-term goals are. Further, the story clearly identified individuals quoted in the story who have ties to the studies or the funding organization. Lastly, the story incorporates input from an independent expert.

However, the story would have been stronger if there had been a skeptical take on the research, which saw in some other coverage, such as this New York Times piece.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The story does not address other treatment options for anxiety or depression, such as talk therapy or other pharmaceutical interventions.

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

Satisfactory

The story does a good job here. For example, the story notes: “[F]inding drugs like psilocybin effective is by no means the final hurdle to their widespread availability. None are currently in production, and no for-profit pharmaceutical company would likely invest millions of dollars to bring to market a pill intended effectively for one-time use.” Well done.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

This is a close call. The story does do a good job of placing the work in context in regard to overall research involving hallucinogens. That’s enough to earn it a “Satisfactory” rating. However, the story doesn’t mention any of the work done in the past 10 years on the use of psilocybin specifically to address anxiety in cancer patients, such as this 2007 study, this one from 2011, or this one from 2013. Are the results from the two new studies consistent with these earlier findings? Do they differ in a meaningful way? That would be good to know.

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

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

Total Score: 7 of 9 Satisfactory

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