The Telegraph, BBC hyped an unpublished tremor study

Since I have Parkinson’s disease,  I try to keep up with the latest research on the progressive neurological disorder,  at least to the best of my ability considering the last biology class I took was more than three decades ago in high school.  Often, though, I find the coverage lacking.   Recent articles in the U.K.’s  Telegraph newspaper and on the BBC’s website on the use of ultrasound to treat people with uncontrollable shaking called Essential Tremor are a case in point.  The disease if often confused with Parkinson’s though it’s roughly eight times as common.

The Telegraph’s story on the use of ultrasound tugs on the reader’s heart in the first paragraph:

Parkinson’s patients and others suffering debilitating tremors could be cured of their shaking using a new ultrasound machine which targets their brain cells.

The BBC is more circumspect though it includes the quote from Prof Wladyslaw Gedroyc, a consultant radiologist at Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust:

“This is a game changer for patients with these movement disorders because we can cure them with a treatment which is completely non-invasive and we don’t have to give unpleasant drugs.”

To be sure, the patient highlighted in both stories, a 52-year-old painter named Selwyn Lucas, is clearly benefitting from the procedure. Unfortunately, scientists have yet to prove that ultrasound can “cure” essential tremor, meaning that permanently reverse its course.  In a press release issued last year, the FDA’s Dr. Carlos Pena urged patients to keep their expectations in check:

 “As with other treatments for essential tremor, this new device is not a cure but could help patients enjoy a better quality of life.

Indeed, I find it strange that U.K.’s National Health Service is touting a scientific research that apparently hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal.   Moreover, the size of the study featuring where Lucas is a patient is small, with 20 participants, so it’s premature to be speaking of “cures.”   Scientists in the U.S., which are conducting clinical trials on ultrasound therapy on tremors, also have found side effects including walking difficulties and numbness in the hands and feet.   It’s strange that neither the Telegraph nor the BBC discussed potential pitfalls of the treatment.

Don’t get me wrong,  I hope that ultrasound therapy succeeds because  I may need it at some point.  It is a less invasive and potentially cheaper alternative to treatments such as Deep Brain Stimulation, which involves putting electrodes in the brain.   It’s important to remember, however, that “potential cures” often fail to live up to their potential and flame out in the regulatory process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How “over-stored” is the U.S.?

Retailers, which have been closing stores in recent years to reduce costs as retail sales increasingly shift online,  may shrink their bricks-and-mortar footprints at a faster pace in the coming years.

As I recently reported in CBSMoneyWatch, real estate information firm CoStar expects nearly 1 billion square feet of retail space to be “rationalized” in the coming years as stores close or are converted to other uses.  According to Edward Jones retail analyst Brian Yarbrough, chains such as Kohls (KSS) and J.C. Penney  (JCP) are in denial about the challenges they face.

” At some point, there’s probably not a need for 2,400 Kohl’s and J.C. Penney’s across the United States,” Yarbrough said. “There’s probably not a need for 5,800 Walmart (WMT) Supercenters.”

Business Bytes podcast: The dilemma of entrepreneur BenTzion Davis

There are a billion new products in the Naked City, but none have the back story of “The Shabbos Safe Hotplate.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews like electronics technician BenTzion Davis take the Sabbath, which they call “Shabbos” or “Shabbat”,  very seriously.   Work is not permitted on the day God rested after creating the world.   That includes cooking, which makes preparing the family Sabbath meal a challenge for Orthodox families.  Many use hotplates to keep their food warm for hours, and sometimes days when celebrating some festivals.    This is a huge potential fire hazard.  In fact, a hotplate fire killed seven children in Brooklyn, New York earlier this year.

Davis, a convert to Judaism who grew up on a Colorado ranch,  is an electronics technician who has always tinkered with stuff.  He has repaired hotplates for friends and many asked him to recommend one for them to buy.   Unfortunately,  Davis found none to his liking, which is why he decided to build one of his own.      Listen to my podcast “Business Bytes” (linked below) for the details of Davis’ innovative design, which he likened to a “tank.”

Davis has targeted his product to the Orthodox Jewish community.    I tried to encourage him to set his sights higher.   I am sure restaurants would be interested in a well-designed hotplate as would college students who use them in their dorm rooms.  I lack the expertise to advise Davis on how to bring his product to the “next level” but would welcome ideas from people who have “been there and done that.”   Send any suggestions to me at jdberr@gmail.com and I will pass them along.

https://soundcloud.com/jd-berr/business-bites-shabbos-safe-hotplate

Don’t believe the Telegraph’s misleading “Alzheimer’s cure” story (Update)

Last month, the U.K.’s Telegraph newspaper published a story with the provocative title “Has Stanford University found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease?”  which has caught the attention of people around the world affected by the horrendous, memory-robbing disease.  Unfortunately, the story, which has generated 2,000 Tweets, is dead wrong.

Stanford Medical School didn’t use the words “potential cure” in its press release announcing the study done by its researchers that centered on the link between a protein called EP2 that’s found on brain cells called microglia and the disease. EP2 manages inflammation and anti-inflammatory responses. The prestigious California university noted that the research “could lead to new ways of warding off the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.” That’s doesn’t sound like “a potential cure” to me but the Telegraph sees things differently.  The paper’s response to my request from Jess McAree, its director of editorial compliance, to correct the story is below.

“If there were no hope that research could lead to treatments or cures for diseases, there would of course be little point in conducting any. It is implicit in any such study that the researchers hope and expect their work to yield advances. The issue you raise cannot therefore be significantly misleading, especially given that the article says only that Alzheimer’s ‘could’ be prevented or cured, not that it will.
“The article also offers no timescale for this, and makes clear that the research involved mice. It is obvious to any reader that no such research could quickly lead to any kind of preventive treatment, let alone a cure.
As a gesture of goodwill, however, we have slightly amended the text to clarify the position.
The Telegraph assumes that people understand the scientific process, which they don’t.  Having a headline posing the question “Has Stanford found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease?” only matters worse.  Understandably,  many people on Twitter have said they hope the news is true. One person noted: “holy crap. Stanford University may have cured Alzheimer’s.”   Said  another: “Hopeful news for those with Alzheimer’s. Hopefully human trials will start soon.”
Unfortunately, there are no human trials on the horizon. According to the non-profit Alzheimer’s Association, the Stanford research is “an important early step in the drug discovery process, but it is still very preliminary. Because we are still testing this potential therapy in animals, we could be 20 years from knowing if it will be a successful treatment in people.”

Given the steep odds of any research resulting in a successful treatment, that forecast may prove to be optimistic. Based on that logic, I can argue that since I am an American citizen that it’s theoretically possible for me to be president. The question raised by the Telegraph headline is simply idiotic. Indeed, as I discussed in my recent CBSNews.com story,  many therapies that drug therapies that were thought to show promise in combating Alzheimer’s have failed in trials.

The Telegraph story has raised the hopes of people affected by this insidious disease around the world that some help for their loved ones is on the horizon. Clearly, that’s not the case.     It is possible, for journalists, to talk about promising research without misleading the public.  Here’s how CNN provided context for a story about a small but promising Alzheimer’s study.

… anecdotal studies like this one are far from generalizable, and larger studies must be done to prove whether the program will work for more than the scant number of people in this study. These study results should be interpreted with a lot of caution, primarily because of the small study group — and because the participants had a range of diagnoses, resulting in different interventions.

In its zeal for clicks,  The Telegraph created a false sense of hope for millions of people around the world affected by these insidious disease.   Not only is it unethical, it’s mean.

(Story was updated Monday),

Yale Daily News corrects erroneous report of a #Parkinson’s disease cure

Well, my public shaming seems to have worked.  The Yale Daily News has updated  the erroneous story it published last week indicating that a cure for Parkinson’s disease had been found.   Here’s what the correction says:

A previous version of this article used a quote from one of the study’s lead authors stating that an alternative cure for Parkinson’s had been found. In fact, the results are only preliminary, and a cure for the disease has not yet been discovered.

Let’s hope that Levent Mutlo, the post-doc who made the cure claim, has learned to align his brain with his mouth, and that author of the article George Saussy, will show at least some skepticism the next time someone says something that is too good to be true.

Some people with Parkinson’s are desperate to find a cure for the degenerative neurological disease.    That’s what makes stories like one published in the Yale Daily News especially worrisome because it provides them with a false sense of hope.   Sadly, this isn’t the first time the media has over-hyped a research study and won’t be the last.

A closer look at Yale Daily News’ bogus report on a #Parkinson’s disease cure

One of the reasons I got into journalism was to avoid hard subjects like biology.  Of course, that science phobia came to haunt me a few years ago when I got diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.   Since then, I have tried to keep up with the latest research on the progressive neurological disease.  That’s why the Yale Daily News’  Oct. 9 report titled “Study Hints at Cure for Parkinson’s” caught my eye.

The story discusses research published in Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine that showed that transplanting stem cells into the brains of monkeys with Parkinson’s managed to alleviate some of their symptoms.   This is good news since these stem cells weren’t embryonic, which mostly come from in vitro fertilization procedures and arouse the anger of people opposed to abortion who equate destroying embryos with killing babies.    Unfortunately, the promise of adult uterine stem cells as the basis of Parkinson’s therapy wasn’t exciting enough for the editors of the publication that bills itself as “The Oldest College Daily.”   (Here’s a link to the paper if you are interested. One of the scientists I consulted who read the paper said the results weren’t statistically significance.)

If the misleading headline wasn’t enough to raise unrealistic expectations in the minds of Parkinson’s patients, the quote from post doc researcher Levent Mutlo proclaiming: “We found an alternative, easy way to cure Parkinson’s” would surely do it.  I had to read the sentence a few times to make sure that no one had messed with my meds.   A few thoughts came to mind.    First, Mutlo must be getting with offers from prospective financial backers.    If the drug companies are charging $90,000 for a hepatitis C treatment, I wonder what they could get for a Parkinson’s cure. It may not reap the $1.9 billion in annual sales that Viagra earned last year but it wouldn’t be too shabby either.    The other thing that struck me as strange about that quote was that it was in the fourth paragraph of the story.  I guess they don’t teach the concept of “burying the lead” at Yale.

Then I decided to actually try to read the study and came across the word “preliminary”, which proved this research though interesting hasn’t found the cure for the disease that ails me an about 1 million other Americans.  Indeed, no one that I know of in the Parkinson’s world views stems cells from whatever source as a “cure.”   They might help address some of the motor symptoms associated with the disease such as gait disturbance, which is a fancy of describing like myself who walk like a zombie.   In fact, my zombie walk is so good that I am going to dress up as “Zombie Daddy” for Halloween.

What I am saying here isn’t top secret or new and could have been found by the Yale Daily News via Google.  In fact, scientists have been doing stem cell research on Parkinson’s disease for years.  These efforts have recently gained traction because as a recent Wall Street Journal article noted:

 Several patients with Parkinson’s disease who received brain-tissue transplants from fetuses in the early 1990s have needed little or no medicine to treat the disease ever since—an outcome virtually unheard of in the course of the disease.

Exciting? You bet.  But these scientists don’t claim they have cured Parkinson’s disease either.  In fact, as the article noted “Some patients developed involuntary movements that could be severe.”   If someone offered me a chance to participate in this research, I would  gladly do so knowing the risks.   But the problem is that it takes years, sometimes decades to bring a drug to market.

What’s particularly annoying about the Yale story is how it gave Parkinson’s suffers a false sense of hope.  One of the commenters even said “OMGOSH! I want to be part of the clinical trials.”  Sadly, any human trials on stem cell-based Parkinson’s therapies are years away from happening if they ever happen at all.    Nothing is crueller to someone with an incurable, progressive disease than to fill them with unrealistic expectations.

This article pissed me off so much that I wrote a response to the Yale Daily News and heard nothing.  My comment on the article got deleted.  Undaunted, I emailed Dr. Hugh Taylor, who is the designated contact for the study, and was delighted that he took the time to reply.    His response is reprinted below.

Dear Johnathan,
I agree. I have already spoken to Levent. He is a student who has done good work but has no experience with the press.
I spent a considerable amount of my time with this YDN reporter detailing the limitations of the study and would never use the word cure.
I was surprised that the press contacted a second author rather than the first author or the designated contact author of the study. In the future I will prepare all for this event.
Levent is young, enthusiastic and optimistic.
I will also speak to the YDN reporter again.
Hugh
Just remember folks, the Internet isn’t a vast store of ideas.  At best it’s a 7-Eleven.  What your mother told you when you were a kid applies today: Don’t believe everything that you read.

The #NFL has 337 million reasons to fix its tattered image with female fans.

The NFL’s inept response to domestic violence may jeopardize its fattest-growing business:  Women.

The Licensing Letter estimates that the most popular professional sports league generates about $337 million in retail sales from sales of apparel, accessories and miscellaneous other products (team color nail polish) to women.   These sales have been gaining at a double-digit increase over the past few years, much  better than sales of goods to men.   Women are about 46 percent of the NFL fan base, which is likely the highest among the four major professional sports.

But as I noted in a story for CBSNews.com,  the passion that women have for football has cooled in the wake of the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scandals, the passion that some women feel for the sport has cooled considerably.

From the story:

“It has to be a huge worry,” said Galen Clavio, an assistant professor of sports management at Indiana University, adding that women are more likely to follow the NFL than any of the other four major professional sports. “These are major problems that need to be addressed.”

The NFL has tapped into the women’s market is many ways. For instance, it has a partnership with clothing line Touch by Alyssa Milano that sells NFL apparel and accessories such as earrings with team logos on it.

Companies are also eager to tap into the NFL’s female fan base. Female NFL fans can decorate their fingernails with tattoos of their favorite team’s logo and with nail polish matching their team colors. They can make their football season look complete with team insignia earnings and a matching necklace.

The question for the league, as well as for advertisers and merchandisers, is whether women are in a buying mood. Chicago Bears fan Chitra Panjabi, a vice president at the National Organization for Women, discovered football after moving to the U.S. for graduate school a few years ago. Her passion for the game has cooled lately, though she did attend a Bears game recently at Soldier Field. NOW has called on Goodell to resign.

“I am turned off by what the NFL is doing,” she said.

Here’s my 2009 interview with #JoanRivers

Here are some highlights from my 2009 interview with Joan Rivers.  She was promoting a show called  “How’d You Get So Rich?” about entrepreneurs. 

Q: How do you lean politically? Do you consider yourself a Republican?

I consider myself nothing. I never considered myself a Republican. I was very, very, very friendly with Nancy Reagan — well, yes, I guess am a Republican. I don’t believe in death taxes. I think if I pay my taxes, what I have at the end belongs to me. Go to hell! I believe in those kinds of things. I believe the government spends money stupidly. In that kind of a sense, I am a Republican.

 

Have you always seen yourself as a businesswoman?

A: I never see myself as a businesswoman. I just get excited about my projects. I just get excited and very passionate about my projects. I wish I were a better businesswoman. A man named Arthur Toll tried to take my company public and absconded with the funds and literally went to jail over it, so I have not been a very good businesswoman. I had to buy my name back and buy my likeness back.

Q: Do you feel rich?

A: No, no, no. Rich is when you can live the style you live in and never have work again. Rich is having Picasso paint your house. These people in How’d You Get So Rich? are rich. They say to their children, “You’ve been bad — go to your suite.”

Q: How do people like that though deal with a down economy? Do they tell their kids, “No Maserati for your 16th birthday”?

A: Remember, this is all first-generation wealth. So the children have seen the parents make it, and it some cases, the children remember when the parents did not have it.

Q: Why are so many celebrities so bad at handling their money?

A: Because they’re not businesspeople, they’re actors. It’s not about the money. It’s about the craft and the doing of it.

What lower #corn prices mean to investors, consumers

Corn prices have slumped about 20 percent this year and in a piece I wrote for InvestorPlace, I analyzed what this means for Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM), Tyson (NYSE:TSN),  Hormel (NYSE:HRL), Dean Foods (NYSE:DF), Domino’s (NYSE:DPZ)  and Papa John’s (NYSE:PZZA).

From the story:

The U.S. is in the midst of one of its best crops in years. There’s so much corn that according to Bloomberg News, stockpiles of the grain are growing at their fastest rate in nine years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently raised its forecast for the corn crop to 14.03 billion bushels, an increase from the 13.86 billion bushels forecast in July. The 2013 harvest was 13.93 billion bushels.

The myth of high corporate taxes

 The business press is chock full of verbiage from everyone from Fortune 500 executives to business groups that argue that the U.S. is placed  at a competitive disadvantage by its 35 percent statutory tax rate, which is the highest in the world.   But as I noted in CBS Moneywatch,  University of Southern California law professor Edward Kleinbard demolished this widely held view.   

From the article:

“It is true of course that the federal corporate tax rate — nominally, 35 percent — is too high relative to world norms, and that the ersatz territorial system requires firms to waste money in tax planning and structuring, but effective marginal tax rates and overall effective tax rates reach the level of the U.S. headline rate only when firms studiously ignore the feast of tax planning opportunities laid out before them on the groaning board of corporate tax expenditures,” he wrote in the 32-page paper.