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Stem cell brain implants–what could go wrong? Guardian doesn’t say

Rating

4 Star

Stem cell brain implants could 'slow ageing and extend life', study shows

Our Review Summary

This story describes some interesting but very early research into the mechanisms of aging and how they might be altered.

The story made it clear that this was mouse-level research and has several hurdles to go before it’s ever tested in people. One weak point for the story was how the story assumed there might be benefits in people yet overlooked the potential risks. Considering this intervention involves inserting stem cells into the brain via the assistance of a viral strain known to be harmful to humans, it’s logical to assume there could be some safety concerns. It also overplayed the novelty here by quoting an expert who called it a “tour de force” and a “breakthrough.”

 

Why This Matters

The desire to somehow combat aging seems inherent in humans. If there is a fairly straightforward “switch” that can control the aging process — and this story suggests so — then this would be a major advance. Yet we are looking at decades before this becomes a rigorous Phase III human trial, let alone a potential intervention in humans. The bottom line is: We are talking about approximately 20 male mice.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

We’ll give the story a “N/A” in this category since it makes clear early on that this research is in the earliest of stages, done in an animal model, and says clearly that clinical trials are a future hope. This is way too early to consider costs which, we assume, would be substantial.

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

Satisfactory

The story says the stem cell intervention extended the rodents’ lives “by 10-15% compared to untreated animals.”  At another point, it said, “the mice lived longer than controls, typically several months more, an increase of about 15%.”

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

Not Satisfactory

The story makes no mention of the potential harms that might arise from this approach. Since this has never been tested in humans, we have no idea what they risks are. The story needed to point this out.

Theoretically, the stem cells would have to be delivered into human brains via injections, which would make the intervention incredibly risky and possibly a non-starter. In the original paper, the stem cells were injected into the hypothalamus of the mice using viruses as “vectors.” The researchers used lentiviruses, which are used often as vectors for research, but can be deadly in humans. Some discussion of this hurdle also was warranted.

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

Satisfactory

The story does a good job at explaining various aspects of the research and depicting the stages through which the research team drew its conclusions. It also is up front about this being animal research, so far untried in humans at even the earliest stages of clinical trials.

Of note, the original paper mentions that this study was conducted in very few mice (total of about 20) and only in male mice. That detail would have been useful to include.

One thing we wanted to point out that was problematic: The story said “if a similar extension was achieved in humans, a person with a life expectancy of 80 years could live to 92.” We have no idea how this may impact humans; the evidence doesn’t support that kind of speculation.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The story doesn’t appear to commit disease mongering, though it could have pointed out that aging in and of itself is not a disease.

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

Satisfactory

The story does quote one source unaffiliated with the research and we didn’t detect any conflicts of interest. (The paper itself notes that the authors of the study have no conflicts of interests.)

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Applicable

The story is all about basic research that suggests an approach that one day might slow, or possibly reverse, the aging process.  There are no real alternatives available now to affect the aging process beyond lifestyle choices that might be healthier and appropriate treatments for illnesses that might otherwise shorten lifespans.

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

Satisfactory

It’s clear from the story that this research is preliminary. The story clearly says, “The next step is to create human neural stem cells in the lab for testing.”  It also states that, “Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York hope to launch clinical trials of the procedure soon, but must first produce supplies of human neural stem cells in the lab which can be implanted into volunteers.”

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story heralds this research as a “tour de force” and a “breakthrough.” Yet is it accurate in a news story to call anything done in animals a “breakthrough?” That word implies relevance to humans, and this is far from established in a mouse study.

Studies in mice are essential but many of them fail to show similar evidence in humans. Likewise, stem cell research is often seen as a magic bullet for some conditions but there have been few cases where the preliminary hope/hype has born out.

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

Satisfactory

The story does not appear to rely on a news release.

 

Total Score: 6 of 8 Satisfactory

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