Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A journalistic pathology

What's wrong with this headline? Spinal-Cord Injury Therapy OK'd by FDA Could Lead to Cures.

A: The FDA has not approved any spinal cord injury therapy.

The FDA has given the go ahead for what is called a Phase 1 clinical trial of a procedure in which Schwann cells, a type of cell that provides support and nurturance for neurons, are injected at the site of a spinal cord injury. A Phase 1 trial is intended solely to determine that an intervention is not grossly dangerous. We are still many years away from FDA approval of any therapy based on this procedure, if it ever happens.

The body of the story is less egregious than the headline, but it still does not give an appropriate sense of how much of a long-shot this is. Miracle cures are very rare -- most medical advances offer some degree of benefit for some people, with some associated adverse effects or risks. But the corporate media compulsively overhype ideas when they are at a very early stage of development.

Remember when Judah Folkman's idea about angiogenesis inhibition was going to cure cancer? (That means using compounds to impede the recruitment of a blood supply by tumors.) It turned out to have limited benefits in some specific kinds of cancer, for some patients, with side effects. And maybe even long-term harm. Somehow or other, medical reporters need to get a grip on themselves.


Anonymous said...

Speaking of the age of miracles and wonders, Cervantes--did you read this?

Cervantes said...

I read the original report in NEJM. A fundamental limitation of this treatment is that it doesn't just kill cancerous cells -- it kills all cells of the targeted type. These patients are living without B cells, which is possible, but used against other forms of cancer, the engineered T cells are likely to attack all sorts of healthy cells. Also you could die from the acute cytokine storm that happens when you suddenly kill off a lot of cells.

As always, a long road ahead that may never get there . . .