This story does a good job of explaining the research, but it could have done more to describe who was behind the study and a quoted source’s ties to that company. In addition, there was no information on potential costs, and the headline and lede may (emphasis on the “may”) lead a reader to expect a more dramatic outcome than is actually the case.
Food allergies affect millions of individuals, and even minute traces of the perpetrators can trigger reactions that could be fatal. Options are few for folks with these allergies, and the ease of employing a patch to combat reactions will loom as a very attractive idea. Stories about such possible remedies need to be brutally clear about the availability timeline.
The story makes no effort to describe the likely cost of this “peanut patch” intervention. Even if a precise number can’t be provided, are we talking tens, hundreds, or thousands of dollars for treatment? Some estimate should be possible at this stage of development.
The level of specificity in the description of benefits in this story is laudable. The text makes it clear that the highest dose intervention desensitized half of the allergic participants by a relatively modest amount, enabling these individuals to be exposed to a gram of peanut protein without reacting. The story also goes on to explain the value of this modest change: this desensitization level may permit allergic individuals to manage “chance” encounters with bits of peanut that can contaminate food products.
Since this was a placebo-controlled trial, however, we wish that the story had provided details about the placebo response rate, as that would have made it clear that the patch was more effective than the placebo. In addition, the take-home message from the headline and first sentence seems less careful than the clearly stated benefit in the story body. As a result, readers may infer a greater benefit than the study actually describes. One could easily conclude that the patch can provide complete protection from an allergic reaction, and that simply is not the case.
The story handles this aspect well, by noting side effects of the patches and explaining the difficulties experienced by two participants forced to drop out of the study.
This dimension of the story was not quite satisfactory. Details of the experimental design are laid out fairly high in the story, and in a way that is quite readable. But the story refers confusingly to “the second phase” of a study without any discussion of what that means. It would have been easy to explain that phase II studies are part of the pre-approval testing process, and that they are designed to find the optimum dose for an experimental treatment. More worrisome, the story doesn’t establish to what extent the study has been subjected to peer review. The story cites the source event — a scientific meeting — making it unlikely that the study has yet negotiated the peer-review process on its way to journal publication. It’s appropriate in this situation to note the preliminary nature of the findings.
Although the story paints a rather scary picture of the risks to individuals with food allergies in a world where otherwise benign food products can easily be contaminated, the data presented back up the scenario. The world IS scary place for folks with food allergies.
The story does offer the reaction of a credible scientist who is not affiliated with the study. But it contains no information to help the reader assess possible conflicts of interest among the study authors. A MedPageToday story about the same study notes that Dr. Sampson, the lead study author quoted in the story, disclosed a relevant relationship with DBV, the company that makes the patch. The story also offers no explanation of who funded the trial (again, DBV).
Although the story makes no overt effort to compare this intervention with alternatives, it does allude to such strategies as “oral or under-the-tongue therapy.” We’ll call this a borderline satisfactory.
The story lede uses cautionary wording–“protection may eventually come”–and then, at the bottom of the text, gets reasonably specific about the “several more years” needed before a product could become available.
The story alludes to oral immunotherapy — a similar approach to desensitization that has been more thoroughly tested than the skin patch — but as noted above, it does not provide any real discussion of how the two compare. Nor does it explain that the patch has already been tested in a pilot study that didn’t find any benefit for the patch over a placebo. What’s different about the current study that led to a higher success rate? A bit more context was needed to satisfy this criterion.
Since the story includes a comment from an independent expert, we can be sure it didn’t rely excessively on a news release. That being said, a news release issued for the study had some useful information for the reader, including sponsorship details, that we wish had made it into the story.