This story touts the potential benefits of an anti-obesity drug that has been tested only in mice. Based on the statements of researchers who stand to earn royalties on the drug, and despite the lack of any evidence (since human testing is likely years away), the story declares that research shows this drug to be “much safer” than other drugs to treat obesity. Overall, this story says too much about things that have yet to be tested, and not enough about the hurdles that stand between this experimental drug and clinical approval.
While novel approaches to serious health problems are newsworthy, stories on drugs that have yet to pass animal testing should avoid raising expectations.
Although we often don’t expect to see firm cost estimates in stories about experimental treatments, a story that exudes such confidence that a new treatment is likely to succeed should at least begin to ask how much it might cost. Is it a chemical that can be produced at relatively low cost or is it more like the sort of exotic treatments that are sold for thousands of dollars a year? Several new obesity drugs have been approved in recent years. The story could have mentioned the price of these drugs to give us some idea of what a new drug might possibly cost.
The story says the compound causes the body to burn fat to make room for new calories, relieves cellular inflammation, and reduces insulin resistance. Even though these benefits were only seen in mice, we’d still expect to see some quantification of what was observed.
The story passes along a claim that this drug would be safer than other treatments. This is irresponsible. Since the drug has yet to be tested in people, it is impossible to know what potential harms might be found later.
The story took three paragraphs and 122 words to tell us that this study involved mice. And the headline said, “…as if YOU’VE just finished a meal.” (emphasis ours) Not MICE finishing a meal. YOU. The story also doesn’t make clear to the reader that mouse studies rarely lead to medications that can be used in humans. Remember leptin? Dramatic results in mouse studies 20 years ago produced great expectations about new treatments for obesity in people, but it hasn’t panned out. The story should have given readers a more realistic understanding of the long odds facing this drug.
We also take issue with some of the language in this story. The story allows the researcher to say, ”We described a new type of therapy.” “Therapy” implies effective treatment of people. Effective treatment in any species hasn’t been firmly established. Much less in people. Lawyers use the term “therapeutic misconception” to describe this type of error, which we’ve written about before (see here and here). This story is an example of therapeutic misconception.
Obesity is a serious health issue. The story mentions that this drug might be an alternative to surgery for people who are morbidly obese.
This story fails readers by withholding the fact that the leading researchers are co-inventors of the molecule. The journal notes that they “may be entitled to royalties.” This financial interest should have been reported in the story.
What’s more, the story does not include any independent experts who could put the study results into context.
The story does mention surgical treatment of morbid obesity, but it prematurely suggests that the drug would be superior, despite an absence of evidence. A more suitable comparison may have been other medications for obesity and their mechanism of action.
The story does caution readers not to expect this drug to be available any time soon.
It does appear that this approach is novel.
The quotes in the story are not the same as the ones in a news release issued by the Salk Institute, so it appears an interview was done. However, it should also be noted that in some ways the news release was more cautious than this story about the drug and its potential use in treating obesity. For example, the story says the research shows the drug is “much safer” than systemic stimulants, whereas the release says the researchers “hypothesize” that the drug is “likely safer in humans” than similar drugs.