The Telegraph, BBC hyped an unpublished tremor study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.