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Unlike many other news sites, NPR resists overstating results of Alzheimer’s study

Rating

4 Star

Categories

Test Of Experimental Alzheimer's Drug Finds Progress Against Brain Plaques

Our Review Summary

Brain x-ray with neuronsThis NPR story discusses early studies on an experimental amyloid-reducing drug that researchers hope may prevent Alzheimer’s disease. It does a good job of balancing the promise of the drug with realistic assessments about the early stage of the research and the fact that there are potential downsides to this treatment.

Importantly, and in contrast to many stories we’ve seen that report on experimental Alzheimer’s drugs, the story doesn’t equate amyloid reduction with reduced risk of disease. It acknowledges that we don’t know whether amyloid is actually the cause of the Alzheimer’s or a by-product of some process that begins elsewhere. That’s important context. Still, the story would’ve been better with a more precise description of the benefits seen in early studies and with perspective from a truly independent source. It also should have explained why some of these same results, reported last year, were generally greeted with disappointment.

That being said, we were glad to see that this story avoided the hype that so many other outlets chose to stoke with headlines like these:

 

Why This Matters

Many stories suggest that reducing amyloid deposits in the brain is the same thing as reducing Alzheimer’s risk. But that’s never been proven, and some studies suggest that reducing amyloid may not have any effect on the disease symptoms that people care about. It’s important to explain this uncertainty to readers. Journalists shouldn’t suggest that a drug is a home run when it’s still standing on second base. This story took a measured approach that we wish we saw more often.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The story doesn’t mention costs. However, the piece is clear that this is early-stage research that might not pan out, so we think it’s acceptable that there’s no cost discussion.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story suggests that treatment with aducanumab results in “striking,” “dramatic” and “remarkable” reductions in amyloid plaques in the brain. But it doesn’t quantify what that means. How many patients saw their plaque levels go down? By how much? Is the reduction bigger than what has been seen with other experimental Alzheimer’s drugs? These details would’ve been helpful.

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

Satisfactory

The story is clear that the drug’s effects on amyloid plaque are accompanied by potential harms:

But there’s a downside. The process of removing plaque sometimes causes fluid to build up in the brain. In rare cases, it can also cause bleeding. These side effects are known as amyloid-related imaging abnormalities, or ARIA.

We’re also told that about 20 participants dropped out of because of adverse effects.

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

Satisfactory

The story cautions that these results are from small, early studies and that plaque reduction is a proxy for outcomes that really matter to patients.

But it will take much larger studies to show for sure whether aducanumab really does slow down Alzheimer’s disease, Reiman says.

And unlike many stories we’ve seen that discuss therapies to reduce amyloid, this piece acknowledges that we don’t whether amyloid is actually a cause of Alzheimer’s symptoms or perhaps an effect of the disease.

 If aducanumab works in larger studies, it could help settle a long-running debate about whether amyloid is really the root cause of Alzheimer’s. This idea is known as the amyloid hypothesis.

And large studies showing that removing amyloid can preserve memory and thinking “would go a long way toward validating the amyloid hypothesis,” Sandrock says.

We do wish the story had noted that about one third of patients in all groups dropped out before completion of the study, which could impact the quality of the overall findings.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Not Applicable

The story doesn’t disease monger, but it also doesn’t explain what Alzheimer’s is or give any sense as to the impact of the disease. We’ll rate this Not Applicable.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story quotes an official from Biogen (which makes the experimental drug) and the author of an accompanying editorial. But we don’t hear from any truly independent sources in the story. The editorialist, Dr. Eric Reiman, is said to be the executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix. It doesn’t explain that the Banner Institute is leading Alzheimer’s Prevention Initiative, an effort to postpone and prevent the disease before it starts. The initiative partners with a number of drug companies, including Roche, Amgen, Genentech, Novartis, on its studies. These relationships merited a mention in the story.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

The story is clear that there are no drugs that treat the underlying cause of Alzheimer’s. It links to a story about a competing amyloid-reducing drug that failed to produce any benefit in a large clinical trial.

We did want to know: Are there any older drugs that have been tried for this? Were they equally optimistic when they were first introduced?  Putting them into perspective would help as it seems there were prior drugs that were hyped to prevent or slow the progression of AD–but subsequently didn’t pan out.

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

Satisfactory

The story calls the drug experimental and says that it will take several years for larger studies to report results. It’s apparent that the drug won’t be available outside of a research study any time soon.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story establishes what appears to be novel about this drug compared with others that reduce amyloid plaques.

One is that the drug appears to ignore benign forms of amyloid protein while attacking the toxic forms thought to damage brain cells. Another is that aducanumab seems to enhance the ability of existing immune cells in the brain to devour toxins, including amyloid.

But while the story is clear that the new paper is presenting details of research first reported last year, it doesn’t explain why the results are now “remarkable” whereas last year they were considered “disappointing,” “mixed” and a “setback.”

We’ll rate this a borderline Satisfactory.

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

Satisfactory

The story includes original reporting and clearly goes beyond any news release.

Total Score: 6 of 8 Satisfactory

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