This Fox News story demonstrates anew that repeating a weak story does not strengthen it. The brief account reports that Canadian researchers have developed a “new pill” that may do for people with celiac disease (CD) what lactase enzyme tablets do for those with intolerance to lactose-rich dairy foods: make it easy and possible for them to enjoy foods they must currently avoid. The story claims that a pill composed of egg yolk-derived antibodies that prevent gluten protein absorption “may help” diners enjoy pizza and beer by popping it just before digging in. On the upside, the report does quote the pill’s developer cautioning that the “antibody supplement” won’t treat or cure celiac disease. On the more egregious downside, however, the story more or less presents the pill as a done deal, which it is not; and it offers not a word about the research underpinning the claim, which appears to be based on work done only in cell culture — not even rodents. There have been no clinical trials (which the story mentions in the last sentence), and the entire report seems to be rehash of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation story, which in turn was based on a vague news release issued by the University of Alberta. This is a negative three-fer: neither the news release nor the CBC story — and thus not the Fox News report — presented any scientific data to support the “news” or even mentioned the actual cell culture research paper published in the journal BMC Immunology. As one of our reviewers aptly noted, a “polluted health news stream” brought this story to readers and viewers — a poorly done news release recopied by CBC and re-re-copied by Fox.
Celiac disease is not rare — afflicting by some estimates 1 in 140 to 1 in 300 people worldwide. But an entire industry of gluten-free products has grown up around the disorder, products embraced by millions who don’t have CD or who think they might, or who for other reasons are willing to stick to gluten-free or gluten-lite diet. Finding a way to help those with actual CD enjoy a more normal diet would indeed be a good thing, but one suspects that should a gluten-blocking supplement actually get to market, it would find a lot of non-CD users. So the need is there, the market is potentially large, but as with many other dietary supplements, usage may or may not be based on any real data demonstrating benefits for those who buy and swallow them. The Fox story does nothing to provide any such information.
The news release, the CBC story and the Fox News piece make no mention of the potential costs of the supplement. If the story is going to speculate that the pill may “make pizza, pasta safe” for those with CD, we think it should also offer a stab at what such a supplement might cost — even if it’s only a ballpark estimate.
The Fox story says, “Patients would take …(the) pill five minutes before eating and have a one to two hour window of eating foods they typically avoid…” Not a single piece of data is offered to support that statement. There is no information in the Fox story, the CBC piece, or the U of Alberta news release about the expected degree of benefit or how anyone could possibly know how long they’d have to consume gluten-containing foods safely.
No cautionary language deals with the potential harms of the supplements or the need for people with CD who might use the supplement to continue a gluten-free diet to avoid the anemia, bloating, fatigue, inflammation and intestinal damage of this auto-immune disease. The CBC story, at least, says “people with the disease must still adhere to a strict gluten-free diet.”
Once again, neither the Fox story, nor the CBC story, nor even the University of Alberta news release that’s the basis for these stories makes any attempt to support claims of benefit with references to evidence. Perhaps that’s understandable, since the study that’s the basis for these claims was done in cell culture, not even a mouse model.
The Fox News piece doesn’t “monger” but doesn’t offer any information at all about prevalence. In fact, there’s so little context about CD that we’re reluctant to award a Satisfactory. We’ll rule this Not Applicable.
Fox does not appear to be making any attempt at serious health journalism here. No one except the researcher is quoted; no original reporting, or outside sourcing is included in the report. The story is basically a paraphrase of a CBC report that’s also seriously deficient.
Conflict of interest issues are also murky. The study states the researchers have no conflicts to disclose, but the news release says the researchers have “partnered with IGY Inc. and Vetanda Group through an agreement with TEC Edmonton to bring the supplement to market.” Sounds like they may have a financial interest in the success of this venture.
This was another lost opportunity to inject some reason into the discussion. The story clearly should have mentioned that people with CD can control their symptoms with special diets. The piece instead focuses entirely on the quality of life/social life issues that people with CD face (which are no doubt considerable) but it would have benefited from some mention of the alternatives to a “pill” that promises to allow the occasional gluten binge.
We’ll award a Satisfactory here since it’s clear that this supplement is not on the market yet and has not been tested. However, we’d note that while the story says clinical trials are “expected to begin” in 2016, it does not mention whether animal studies have been done or will be, and doesn’t mention the companies that are involved.
The story describes a “new pill” that allows gluten “to pass from the body without doing any damage.” We’ll grant that the approach being used here does seem to be “new,” but contrary to the story’s claim, it doesn’t appear that this pill has ever been tested in an actual human body — only in cell culture. Moreover, as the published research paper (but not the story) points out, there are a variety of other approaches being explored that might allow people with CD to eat gluten — many of which seem to be just as far or further along than the pill described here. The story seems to imply that the yolk-derived antibodies (which it never names) are the only possibility. There is no context offered.
This criterion is meant to assess whether some original reporting was done. And in this case there was not. The story does not rely directly on a news release, but it’s basically a repost of a CBC story that is itself deficient in many ways. We’ll rule this Not Satisfactory.