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Newsweek speculates about an ‘obesity cure,’ and doesn’t disclose important conflict of interest

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2 Star

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OBESITY CURE? SCIENTISTS DISCOVER ANTIBODY THAT REDUCES BODY FAT IN MICE

Our Review Summary

The story focuses on a study recently published in Nature, in which researchers reported being able to reduce body fat and increase bone mass in mice by injecting them with a specific antibody.

The story makes clear that this research was done in rodents and therefore is years away (at best) from even beginning clinical trials in humans. But if a story is going to discuss the potential benefits, such as this one does, it has a responsibility to place the work in context by touching on issues related to the quality of the evidence, conflicts of interest and potential adverse health effects — even if only to say that no one knows what those adverse effects may be in humans.

 

Why This Matters

When people are making decisions about their health, they weigh the pros and cons. How — and how much — could this treatment help me? And how could it hurt me? How much would it cost? As a general rule, HealthNewsReview.org has always felt that if it is not too early to talk about the benefits an emerging treatment may provide (i.e., the pros), then it is not too early to talk about the potential costs and risk (i.e., the cons). Many people struggle with weight loss issues, for health or quality-of-life reasons. And many people struggle with issues related to losses in bone density, such as osteoporosis. In other words, many people may be interested in following research into this antibody and how it may be used.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Cost is not discussed. The Nature article notes that “Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has filed a provisional patent application that covers the application of FSH inhibition to decrease body fat,” so clearly the researchers have considered the possibility of commercializing the relevant antibody. And while it is likely far too early for one to say what a related medical treatment might cost, the story needs to make clear that there will be a cost. Is it easy to produce antibodies like this one? Does it involve esoteric technologies or components that could contribute to cost? Is it something that could be made using existing manufacturing processes? If nothing else, the story could at least say that researchers aren’t sure what any resulting treatments might cost (assuming someone asked the researchers about this).

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

Not Satisfactory

Given that the research was on mice, there’s no way to determine whether the intervention would have any benefit at all to people, let alone to determine the scope of the likely benefit. The story should have made this point before it starts discussing benefits like “the antibody caused significant weight loss and gains in bone mass.” The story tells readers that “Mice [sic] a fairly close genetic match to [h]umans, and…[the corresponding author] is hopeful there will be similar effects in humans.” That doesn’t give readers much insight. In short, readers don’t get a very good idea of what the antibody did to the mice, nor how relevant that is to human biology.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story does not tell readers whether the antibody experiment had any adverse effects on the health of the mice, much less what potential there may be for harms in humans. Again, we know that there have been no human studies yet, so it is impossible to say what potential harms have been found in human subjects. However, it is worth — at the very least — specifically acknowledging this point. And one could do more, such as asking about the various roles that the FSH plays in the human body (which likely vary across sex, age range, etc.).

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

Not Satisfactory

The story doesn’t offer much detail about the study. For example, the story doesn’t tell readers about the sample size for the study.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Satisfactory

Obesity is a disease, according to many major medical groups including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, among others. But what we take issue here with is how the Newsweek headline wildly and irresponsibly speculates that this research might be an “obesity cure.” At this point, the research is far too preliminary to be linked with the word “cure” (which is one of our 8 words you shouldn’t use in medical news.)

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

Not Satisfactory

The story does cite one independent source, but only in the very last paragraph. The story does not tell readers who funded the research, nor does it note that a provisional patent has been filed for the antibody. This is particularly relevant given that the scientist listed as inventor on that patent, and who would therefore receive royalties and/or licensing fees if the antibody is commercialized, is the same researcher who is quoted throughout the article about the potential impact of the antibody.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Applicable

Given how far removed this is from clinical trials, much less a clearly defined treatment, it’s very difficult to determine what the alternatives would be. For example, would we expect the story to list alternatives for osteoporosis treatment? Or for weight loss? Both? As such, we’ll rate this not applicable.

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

Satisfactory

The story clearly notes all of the steps that need to be taken before the antibody could even begin human trials, in three to four years at the earliest.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story provides sufficient background on the research to make clear how researchers reached this point. The story would have been stronger if it had noted that this was the first study to look specifically at the role of this antibody in addressing obesity in lab mice.

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

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to be based on a news release.

Total Score: 3 of 9 Satisfactory

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