Drawn substantially from a feature-style news release issued by Stanford University’s School of Medicine, this story describes results of a trial in which modified human stem cells were injected into the brains of so-called “chronic” stroke patients.
The results, which study authors called promising, showed the injections were safe. The stem cells–as expected–survived only briefly, but the researchers report that there were “clinically meaningful results” in which some patients (it’s unclear how many) recovered “significant” motor function.
The story states the total number of patients (18), their age range (average age was 61), but it’s missing hard information about the range of specific improvements, along with any interviews from researchers independent of this study or medical center.
An estimated 800,000 people in the U.S. experience an ischemic stroke each year, and most of them have permanent motor deficits unless treated with drugs within a few hours of the stroke. Given that this pilot safety study showed improvements in patients whose first-ever strokes occurred from six months to three years before treatment with mesenchymal stem cell injections, millions of people with stroke disability could potentially realize some restored function if the current research is borne out in further studies.
Because this story involved an experimental therapy in an early phase trial, formulating a probable cost of the treatment is premature. The story would have been strengthened, perhaps, by some indication of what stroke care and disability costs in lost productivity and health care expenses in the U.S.
The story is clearly upbeat about the promise of the therapy and uses a great deal of positive language from the news release. But the story did not really quantify the results in a way that would give readers a sensible picture of just how many of the 18 could “walk again” and what exactly the metrics used to assess results consist of.
The article duly noted side effects. It’s worth pointing out that the study only followed patients for about a year, and long-term effects are unknown and could be more severe.
The article does not adequately describe the quality of evidence. We’re told there was a trial, but not that it was done on a small number of patients chiefly to establish safety.
The story would have been stronger on this criteria if it had, for example, used this researcher’s quote from the news release:
“This was just a single trial, and a small one. It was designed primarily to test the procedure’s safety.”
No mongering here.
As noted above, this article appears to have been drawn substantially if not exclusively from the news release, although the writer appears to have interviewed the principal investigator; but it offers not a single source outside of the investigators who presumably approved the news release issued by Stanford.
There is disclosure about industry funding in the news release, but none at all in the article. The article would have gone a long way to put credibility and context into a genuinely promising experimental therapy if it had sought comment from an independent stem cell therapy researcher.
Although the article mentions there are “therapies” that help after a stroke, it does not mention what these are, how often they succeed, how often they fail, or their costs.
The article notes that the investigators are planning a larger trial of the procedure.
We’ll give this a Satisfactory rating here because the article does make the point that the stem cell therapy trial in question does demonstrate safety and some efficacy; and it also notes that the benefits were detected regardless of the severity, duration, or location of the stroke in the test population.
And it does well by mentioning that previous research showed the stem cells used can “treat” brain cell damage caused by loss of oxygen, essentially what happens in an ischemic stroke. The article could have done better by saying whether that past research was done in lab-grown cells or in animals.
Because the story includes an interview with the lead researcher–with quotes not found in the news release–this is Satisfactory. However, that’s about the only information in the story not found in the news release, so this is a barely passing scenario.