Beware of hype in medical science

Governments have been accused of trying to spin the news to their political advantage. It turns out that some medical researchers may be tempted to do the same. A study just published in PLOS Biology has uncovered a heap of hype in medical science.  

Spin is defined as research conclusions that distort the interpretation of the study results and mislead readers by putting results in a more favourable light. Experts from the University of Sydney in Australia reviewed 35 research papers that analysed so-called ‘spin’ in hundreds of previously published research studies. Some of the studies were controlled clinical trials comparing one medication to another or to a placebo. Some were observational studies in which original researchers made no attempt to eliminate bias.  And some of the papers were systematic reviews that combine the results of several studies.

What the experts found was a lot of hype. They found spin in randomised clinical trials – the purest and least-biased form of medical research. They found spin in 26 per cent of systematic reviews.  And, they found spin in a whopping 84 per cent of uncontrolled observational studies, making these the worst offenders.

The experts identified several spin techniques. In some cases, the researchers made inappropriate claims about the effectiveness of a medication when the so-called benefit was not statistically significant. In others, the authors made treatment recommendations for doctors – even though the recommendations were not supported by the results of their own research findings. In some cases, the authors cherry-picked results to find something positive to say about a medication. Some researchers used results showing correlation as proof of cause and effect. And some researchers presented their data in a more favourable light than deserved by using overoptimistic language, by describing the study in misleading ways, and by underreporting the adverse effects of the treatment.

The problem of scientific hype is magnified when news media report on the study. The media often hype a promising study on a new treatment for a devastating disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. For a while now, the prevailing theory is that the disease is caused by the build-up of tangled amyloid plaques in the brain. Drugs that target amyloid and Tau proteins have been developed as potential treatments. Early studies got a lot of hype. Unfortunately, they haven’t panned out. Earlier this year, a blog on the web site said it’s time to question the amyloid theory.  

This may surprise you, but gone are the days when smart news organizations fall for spin. As the blog pointed out, over-hyped news releases with buzzwords like breakthrough and game-changer are turn-off to the media. The blog (rightly) put much of the blame for spin on drug companies for overstating results of early clinical drug trials. We’ve seen the same kind of hype in stem cell research.

Unfortunately, there’s huge potential for harm. A research paper that spins a somewhat promising treatment into a miracle cure encourages patients to want to jump the gun and get it. This March, the New England Journal of Medicine published a case report of three patients who went blind after receiving an unproven stem cell treatment that was being used at a clinic in Florida to treat macular degeneration.  Add to that the cost of the treatment — thousands of dollars — according to the report.  

A well-spun bit of research peddles false hope to patients and families desperate for good news. It may also induce patients to volunteer for the wrong reasons as research subjects in clinical trials.

Scientists need to weed out spin from their research papers. As well, they (and the institutions where they do research) need to decide if the findings are too preliminary to promote in the news. A study in which rats receive a treatment for cancer that may one day be tried in humans is a prime example. Assuming it’s appropriate to talk to the media, the people who write news releases need to avoid hype.  

Some have suggested that researchers sign off on the wording of news releases. At least one prominent critic has called for news releases that accompany the publication of scientific research to be attached to the research article so that people can see how the research is being spun to the media. It’s a good thing that news organizations employ increasingly savvy science and health journalists who know statistics and can cut through research spin.

And, if all of that fails, be sceptical.

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