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),