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),

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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.