2 Recent Science Hype Awards on CRISPR & Stem Cells

Science hype deserves negative attention for the harm it does including both to science itself and to patients.

science hype

I’ve seen two really egregious examples of hype lately in science headlines.

First from the Washington Post comes a stem cell story with a very hype-ful title:

Stanford researchers ‘stunned’ by stem cell experiment that helped stroke patient walk

What the heck? This is a small study and the stunning event could be a placebo effect.

CRISPR HypeThe actual article by Ariana Eunjung Cha isn’t bad and has some balance, but overall this kind of thing is definitely unhelpful.

Note that for most media articles, the author has little-to-no say on the title. So you editors out there going for click bait on your science article titles, take it back a notch.

Then we have the CRISPR hype winner for the year so far from the Genetic Literacy Project (GLP) with a truly awful title for a piece by David Warmflash:

Heard of CRISPR gene editing? It can save your life

It can? Sign me up!

GLP is a genetic techno fanboy website that aggressively promotes all things genetic modification. They often use parts of my articles (without permission) and make up their own titles so it is very possible that Warmflash had nothing to do with that title.

12 thoughts on “2 Recent Science Hype Awards on CRISPR & Stem Cells


  1. @admin Your negative bias really shines through on this one. Why is it wrong for the Post to put a direct quotation into the title of a story?

    …”Gary Steinberg, the study’s lead author and chair of neurosurgery at Stanford, said in an interview that while he is cautious about “overselling” the results of such a small study, his team has been “stunned” that seven of the 18 patients experienced significant improvement in their abilities following treatment…”

    Your familiar refrain of “It could be placebo.” and “It might cause cancer.” gets old after a while. Your underselling of a story is just as much of a disservice to the general public as any newspaper’s overselling of one.

    So, I’ll quote Stanford if that’s ok?

    Their headline reads:

    “Stem cells shown safe, beneficial for chronic stroke patients, Stanford-led clinical trial finds”

    Quotes from Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, professor and chair of neurosurgery:

    ‘Clinically meaningful’ results

    “This was just a single trial, and a small one,” cautioned Steinberg, who led the 18-patient trial and conducted 12 of the procedures himself. (The rest were performed at the University of Pittsburgh.) “It was designed primarily to test the procedure’s safety. But patients improved by several standard measures, and their improvement was not only statistically significant, but clinically meaningful. Their safety. But patients improved by several standard measures, and their improvement was not only statistically significant, but clinically meaningful. Their ability to move around has recovered visibly. That’s unprecedented. At six months out from a stroke, you don’t expect to see any further recovery.”

    And in callout form for emphasis: “Their ability to move around has recovered visibly. That’s unprecedented.”

    Why didn’t you point out these important safety findings? Is it because it doesn’t line up with your “They might cause cancer or form tumors” mantra?


  2. @admin – My post got cut off. Here is the rest:

    “No immune rejection

    Mesenchymal stem cells are the naturally occurring precursors of muscle, fat, bone and tendon tissues. In preclinical studies, though, they’ve not been found to cause problems by differentiating into unwanted tissues or forming tumors. Easily harvested from bone marrow, they appear to trigger no strong immune reaction in recipients even when they come from an unrelated donor. In fact, they may actively suppress the immune system. For this trial, unlike the great majority of transplantation procedures, the stem cell recipients received no immunosuppressant drugs.”

    http://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2016/06/stem-cells-shown-safe-beneficial-for-chronic-stroke-patients.html


    • @Bill,
      If I see something like these article titles that sound like hype and that could mislead people or grossly raise expectations beyond the science, sometimes I’ll call it out in a post. If you note in my post I said the article itself was more balanced.
      Paul


  3. @admin – Actually, you said it had “some balance”, which to me has a negative connotation but I won’t split hairs.

    In your opinion, is the Stanford article more balanced than the Post article? Is the Stanford article’s title too sensationalized? What is your opinion regarding this study’s safety findings?

    What about the statement that, “In pre clinical studies…[these allogeneic mesenchymal stem cells]…have not been found to cause problems by differentiating into unwanted tissues or forming tumors.” ?

    What about the fact that the subjects didn’t require immunosuppression?

    Do you find these results, which the head of neurosurgery at Stanford described as “stunning” and “unprecedented”, interesting at all scientifically?


  4. First of all, Gary is always very careful to state that it could be placebo effect from just the needle itself.

    @Bill Jones

    You’re conflating Paul’s characterization of the reporting (which is breathless and hyped for pageviews) with the science. The overhyped reporting is a problem as it massively distorts facts and only the media outfit truly benefits from this. Given that most science reporters have very little science background/training, this leads to “just cite what’s in the unversity press release, why bother actually doing your job as a journalist?”

    (I note that this applies to most, but not all, science journalists/writers).


  5. @AASCR – I am asking what @admin thinks about the trial results. I’d also like to know if he thinks Stanford is just as guilty of being sensational as the Post given the article they published.

    What do you think?

    Is this a better title in your opinion? “Stem cells shown safe, beneficial for chronic stroke patients, Stanford-led clinical trial finds”

    Stanford even includes a picture of a smiling patients with a testimonial!

    “My right arm wasn’t working at all,” said Coontz. “It felt like it was almost dead. My right leg worked, but not well.” She walked with a noticeable limp. “I used a wheelchair a lot.”

    Not anymore, though.

    “After my surgery, they woke up,” she said of her limbs.

    End of quote.

    @admin and @AASCR – Why does Stanford get a pass?


    • @Bill,
      These are fair questions and Stanford doesn’t get a pass. Still it sounds to me like Stanford was a lot more measured relatively speaking, but crossed the line to some extent.
      It gets tricky with quotes from clinical trial participants who may be genuinely ecstatic about how they are feeling and that can be reflected in the words they choose that end up in articles. Their views are valid, but if mixed with some hype by the writer, an overly exuberant title, etc. it can end up painting a hyped picture overall. In Stanford’s case ideally they should have inserted a qualifier into the title such as “small” or “preliminary” related to the trial.
      As to the science, it seems encouraging even if very preliminary with small # of subjects. Writers in these cases need to use more caution in how it is discussed.
      Paul


  6. @AASCR – Nowhere in the Stanford article does “Gary” mention the word placebo.

    However, he does say this: ““This wasn’t just, ‘They couldn’t move their thumb, and now they can.’ Patients who were in wheelchairs are walking now,” said Steinberg, who is the Bernard and Ronni Lacroute-William Randolph Hearst Professor in Neurosurgery and Neurosciences.

    and this: “This could revolutionize our concept of what happens after not only stroke…”

    and this: “It was designed primarily to test the procedure’s safety. But patients improved by several standard measures, and their improvement was not only statistically significant, but clinically meaningful. Their ability to move around has recovered visibly. That’s unprecedented. At six months out from a stroke, you don’t expect to see any further recovery.”

    So it comes as no surprise to me that the press might actually believe what he says and write about it. I’d like to see @admin pillory Stanford for their article and not just the Post, especially since they started it all.

    Can you say CIRM 2.0?


  7. Bill,

    Your suggested title would certainly be better. I think that this sensationalism is being pushed by hospital adminstration (through the Stanford hospital PR office) because they want to give the impression that this is unprecedented and will cure every stroke victim forever (which it probably won’t).

    It is certainly a problem in bioscience and in medicine that the goals of the adminstration and the scientists/clinicians in communicating results hardly (if ever, assuming the scientists/clinicians are acting in good faith) align. The press for the most part seems to be happy to be complicit in advancing the adminstration’s agenda.

    I think the ultimate problem has to do with the press consistently falling for the logical fallacy of appeal from authority, whether purposely or not. Because of this, I generally view most science writing (and especially University/Medical Center press releases) as clickbait.

    It is true that Gary is not quoted in the article as saying placebo, but unfortunately, reporters are under no obligation to give us everything Gary said in the interview. In case, I presume that an editor would claim that this would make the interview less interesting (i.e., less page views)


  8. It should also be pointed out that these weren’t regular MSCs that were autologously extracted, processed at bedside, and then implanted I.V. by some random clinic. They were an allogeneic cell therapy product from SanBio, which is a legitimate company that was founded by Dr. Okano of Keio University (a great stem cell researcher/neuroscientist and collaborator of a lab I postdoc’d in), where the cells were genetically modified (nonvirally) to express the NotchI intracellular domain, and then delivered by intraparenchymal injection into the brain. Unfortunately, a lot of this information was missing from much of the media reports, which might lead people to believe they might get the same results from going to their neighborhood surgeon to get a “stem cell” therapy. I think that such omission can do as much damage as the hype.

    Probably the best media coverage that I have seen:
    http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2016/jun/03/stem-cell-stroke-stanford-sanbio/

    More about the cells:
    http://www.san-bio.com/news/documents/MSCs%20and%20SB623%20cells%20rescue%20neural%20cells%20via%20trophic%20support%20(Tate%202010).pdf


  9. @AASCR – it’s certainly a fair point that writers and editors routinely leave out certain quotations and other important information that do not fit their intended narrative. This blog is no different.

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