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How to Interpret Medical Breakthroughs in the Mainstream Media

May 2, 2013

Paul E. Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, M.D., is director of the HIV Program and Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

There it is, right in your daily paper, on your tablet or computer screen, or wherever you get your news today -- a headline about a great medical breakthrough everyone's been waiting for:

Scientists on Brink of HIV Cure
Researchers believe that there will be a breakthrough in finding a cure for HIV "within months."

Yes, I read this exact headline recently. Here's the full article, published in the English newspaper the Daily Telegraph. It details how some Danish researchers have figured out a way for "the HIV virus to be stripped from human DNA and destroyed permanently by the immune system."

Furthermore, they are "expecting results that will show that finding a mass-distributable and affordable cure to HIV is possible."

By all means, go ahead and read the full piece; you've got 20 free reads on the Telegraph website. As a treat, there's a colorful stock photo too, showing red blood cells floating through some blood vessels, along with a few HIV virions glowing bright green -- it's very Fantastic Voyage-esque, minus Raquel Welch in her scuba gear.

But return here for a moment, please. I'm going to recommend three simple steps to getting the most from this -- and other medical breakthroughs -- in the mainstream media.

Step 1: Be a skeptic. As exciting as curing HIV would be, and no matter how much you'd like this to happen, just think for a moment about the plausibility of this story. Are scientists really on the "brink" of curing HIV? If so, why is this only appearing in the U.K. Telegraph? Trust me, this brink-of-cure has not yet appeared in peer-reviewed medical journals or at scientific meetings. And wouldn't you expect this kind of advance, if real, to show up everywhere in media land? Fire up that Google machine, and see what you can find about it elsewhere -- lo, it's the great following herd, all stampeding after that same U.K. Telegraph story. And importantly, here's a New York Times piece on the very same general subject -- HIV cure -- and they don't even mention these Danish researchers. Sure, the Times misses some stories, but it's got some pretty impressive Health and Science sections -- could they miss this, researchers ON THE BRINK OF CURING HIV, no less? I think not. So perhaps Mr. U.K. Telegraph Science Reporter is exaggerating a bit, for the sake of his story, of course.

Step 2: Don't be a complete snob -- give the story a chance. This is the other side of that same coin. Sure, it's been a challenge curing HIV, but we've got that Berlin patient (now living in Las Vegas, by the way) -- he's cured. And the baby from Mississippi, he/she is cured (sort of). Plus, a whole army of smart HIV researchers actively tackling the problem as we speak. In fact, this very same approach cited by the Danish researchers -- stimulating the HIV reservoir with an HDAC inhibitor -- is a leading candidate for a viable cure strategy; it's being looked at by many groups. Hey, why can't Good Ol' Ole Søgaard and his team be the first to succeed? The extra funding provided by the Danish government -- 12 million Danish kroner! -- is further evidence of the soundness of Professor Søgaard's approach.

Step 3: After all that, land someplace between Steps 1 and 2. Take a deep breath. Read the full piece.
Discard the fluff: Brink of cure; 12 million Danish kroner; expect a cure to be available in months; you can distribute it to millions; it's affordable, too.
Focus on the facts: Some Danish researchers have some funding to investigate a potentially promising HIV cure strategy; they are testing it in a small number of people; some European scientists may soon be collaborating; we have no actual results yet to report.

After these three steps, all these medical breakthroughs -- on HIV, cancer, Alzheimer's, weight loss, male-pattern baldness, you-name-it -- make a lot more sense.

Even if they are less exciting. Enjoy the movie.



(You can also read this post on WBUR's CommonHealth blog.)

Paul Sax is Clinical Director of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women's Hospital. His blog HIV and ID Observations is part of Journal Watch, where he is Editor-in-Chief of Journal Watch AIDS Clinical Care.

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Journal Watch is a publication of the Massachusetts Medical Society.
 

Reader Comments:

Comment by: ranjan (india) Fri., Jun. 21, 2013 at 2:08 am EDT
I agree such news only create and subsequent disclaimers or that any success is actually decades away is rather inhuman to say the least in playing with the emotions of the affected. Have you noticed so many breakthrough news from reputable agencies, like the israeli scientists, draco, washington university, even the berlin patient to name a few and faded away. No further news or follow up. Of interest is the berlin patient. Did they wait for decades of data to think out of the box?

I would like to ask if a life threatening epidemic were to threaten mankind and give only 6 months time, would we still talk of cure decades away or make a concentrated effort to find a solution. It is this apathy and lack of urgency that is frustrating that medication is there to hold it despite its side effects and so we can take our time in finding a cure. There is no unity in tackling it and finding a cure despite so many breakthroughs announced.
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