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Sexy but not sensational: STAT strikes the right balance on stem cell diabetes approach

Cell therapy in protective bubble offers hope for diabetes fix

Our Review Summary

DiabetesThis article does a really nice job of explaining the science behind two studies and appropriately depicting the pace of scientific process. With other news coverage talking about the research getting us “close to a cure” for diabetes, this story took a measured approach that should be posted on the walls of newsrooms everywhere. Yes, you can make a lab study exciting and engaging for readers without overstating the findings. A little more quantification of benefits and risks would have elevated this to five stars.

 

Why This Matters

Type I Diabetes is a relatively common illness that takes significant time and expense to manage and is associated with major complications. For years it has seemed we are on the verge of a major breakthrough, but, even with better treatments, this condition remains a major public health problem. All the more reason to be circumspect when describing new research into this area. This story says, “Just because the system produced strong results in mice does not mean people will respond the same way.” Hear us applauding.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Part of the caution in this story is not linking the research too closely to a potential on-the-shelf treatment. The story says in several ways that a drug therapy would be a good distance away. So we don’t think it appropriate to talk about costs at this point. We rate it Not Applicable.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story does not break down the actual number of positive findings in either study, and we wish it had. It may be that the way in which the benefits were measured was hard to explain. But we still think the story should try to give readers some specifics. We want to know more than just that the beta cells performed “every bit as good as the body’s own cells.”

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

Not Satisfactory

The story makes a nod in the direction of harms when it notes that there was a minimal immune system response to the transplanted cells. An immune response is currently one of the harms that limits the usefulness of this procedure.

But the story should have gone further to describe how the transplantation procedure is performed. This is an invasive approach that is not without risks and adverse effects.

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

Satisfactory

The story does a really nice job of quickly summarizing the state of the evidence and then going into more detail. It’s almost a blueprint for how these stories should be written. In just three sentences, it captures nearly all the relevant information about the evidence. It says, “In one of two related studies published Monday, Anderson and his colleagues described in the journal Nature Biotechnology how they had tested 774 variations of alginate in rodents and monkeys and identified a handful that elicited a greatly reduced foreign body response. For the other paper, published in Nature Medicine, the group embedded tiny capsules made from that durable alginate with beta cells derived from human embryonic stem cells. They then transplanted them into mice with a disease akin to type 1 diabetes.” Note: published in a respected journal, tested in animals (the story could have specified how many and acknowledged that these were animal studies higher up in the story), focused on a disease that’s not exactly diabetes but close. This should signal to readers that a cure for diabetes is still a long ways away.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There is no disease mongering in the story. In fact, it does a nice job of explaining the disease and the specific problem this research is trying to address. It says, for example, “In people with type 1 diabetes, formerly known as juvenile-onset diabetes, the immune system dismantles the pancreatic cells that normally produce insulin. So researchers have long sought a way to put back healthy insulin-producing cells, known as beta cells, into patients.”

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

Satisfactory

Most of the sources are connected to the study, either from the research institutions involved or the funders. But we give the story points for taking the next step and talking to people in the pharmaceutical research world who would be among those actually taking a discovery like this and making it therapeutic. The story quotes someone from Semma and someone from VitaCyte, both of whom provide a good dose of realistic context. While ideally we would’ve heard from someone with no stake at all in this line of research, we think there are enough voices with enough distance from the studies to earn the story a Satisfactory rating. And to the article’s credit, the sources’ affiliations are all clearly stated.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story does contrast this research with other research into treating diabetes. The story might have provided a bit of context about other work on developing an artificial pancreas for Type 1 Diabetes patients (there’s a lot on this).

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

Satisfactory

The story at the top makes it clear that the treatment is not available, saying, “Scientists on Monday showed they had overcome some of the major hurdles standing in the way of a long-sought therapeutic fix for patients with type 1 diabetes, outlining an approach that the body’s immune system could tolerate and providing a possible pathway toward clinical trials in the next few years.” Not the qualifier of “possible” in that sentence.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

News stories often don’t address the novelty of a treatment or research finding. But this story actually uses the word “novel,” which sort of puts a spotlight on the category for us. The story quotes one of the study’s funders calling the protective cell bubbles studied in the research “novel materials.” We think the story actually does establish their novelty with enough context and caveats.

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

Satisfactory

The story does not rely on a news release.

Total Score: 7 of 9 Satisfactory

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