Over the past week, two national news stories have nicely illustrated the distressing (and at times, depressing) state of science reporting.
The most recent headlines appeared on Wednesday when researchers announced they had developed a method for preventing the brain from rapidly decomposing in the early hours after death. Here’s a link to the press release issued by the National Institutes of Health.
To briefly summarize: Researchers developed a way to deliver an artificial blood supply to the isolated postmortem brain of a pig, which was obtained from a pork processing plant. This technique preserved the brain tissue and prevented important cellular and molecular functions from being destroyed.
This is no small thing. The natural, rapid degradation of brain tissue previously hampered attempts to better understand this remarkably complex organ…until now.
Researchers believe this week’s advancement holds tremendous promise. Future studies using better-preserved brain tissue could unearth new ways to promote brain recovery after the temporary loss of blood flow via heart attack or stroke. Another possible application is the ability to better understand brain injury and how to counteract it. The technology might also be used to understand how an experimental drug interacts with the brain prior to clinical trials.
In short, this research could greatly expand our understanding of the brain. In fact, we likely cannot even begin to identify at this early point, all the possible benefits.
However, it’s quite possible that progress could stall, based on the way media reported additional details included in the NIH press release. These details are as follows:
“Although the researchers saw some preservation of flow through blood vessels and energy use, there was no higher level functional activity in the brain circuits.”
“[The brains] showed reduced cell death, preserved anatomical and cell architecture, restored blood vessel structure and circulatory function, restored glial inflammatory responses, spontaneous neural activity at synapses and active cerebral metabolism, compared to brains perfused with a control solution, which rapidly decomposed. Importantly, there was no global electrical activity that would indicate higher-order functions, such as awareness or perception.”
So how did the media respond? What did they take away from all this?
A small sampling of some of the more cringe-worthy and egregious headlines:
The full text of some of these stories was more responsible/less sensational. But let’s not forget the important role that headlines play in setting the overall tone of the story for readers.
Of course, there are also several well-written, non-hysterical and less science-fictiony stories out there as well.
The Atlantic: Scientists Partly Restore Activity in Dead-Pig Brains
But here’s the issue: for every straightforward, well-written and measured story, there are plenty that are not. Millions of Americans are hearing about fictional “zombie-pigs” or “Franken-swine.” The stories they are ingesting contain heavy doses of drama and moral outrage. But when it comes to accurately and soberly communicating what scientists actually did and what these new findings mean…eh, not so much.
The urge to create headlines that will generate online clicks (AKA click- bait) was simply too great for many news outlets. In the current era, facts and important contextual information suddenly become inconvenient when shares and retweets are at stake.
But this isn’t the only story that should disappoint those who value science. Another story, this time in STAT, focuses on a different, but common problem in health news reporting: the failure to disclose up front when an animal model was involved. Of course, there are countless advancements in animals that have been translated to humans. A few recent ones:
- The new Ebola vaccine, which appears to be hugely successful, was developed in nonhuman primates.
- Last year’s Nobel prize for advancements in immunotherapy relied heavily on proof-of-concept studies in mice.
- And this non-invasive approach for treating the tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease.
That being said, there are certainly cases where animal models do not mimic human disease. Nobody suggests they are perfect. But at the same time, there are a huge number of instances where they provide data that translates very well across species. However, it can take several years for a therapy to be developed, tested and approved. Furthermore, fundamental research, the basic building blocks of knowledge that are the foundation for understanding how the body and brain function in health and disease, depend upon animal based studies. In fact each of the examples above depended on decades of scientific advances to identify the cells and processes that make the immune system work (or not).
For all of these reasons, reporters should clearly state when animals were involved in a research finding within the headline of a story or shortly thereafter. In addition, whenever animal studies lead to a human intervention (which happens all the time), scientists, institutions and reporters should make a point to highlight this. While those studies almost always occur several years before a new therapy is approved, the public has a need, and a right, to understand and appreciate the ENTIRE biomedical advancement process from idea…to treatment.
So what do these two stories tell us about the current state of science reporting? In short… the field requires some pretty serious attention and reform. If it were up to us, we would prescribe a greater focus on the details, a lot less drama, and a bit more transparency.