Earlier this week, I saw one of the best treatments of a misinterpreted story that has me thinking about how all news outlets should report in vitro laboratory studies.
Only thing is that it didn’t come from a news outlet.
It came instead from a brainwashing site run by those medical socialist types – I am, of course, speaking of the UK National Health Service and their excellent patient education website, NHS Choices.
You may recall reading in the popular dead-tree or online press that investigators from New York Medical College in Valhalla published in British Journal of Urology International about maitake mushroom extract killing bladder cancer cells. The most widely cited reports came from the UK Daily Mail by Tamara Cohen entitled, “Mushroom ‘shrinks cancer tumours by 75 percent,’” and “Cancer Cure: Mushrooms Can Shrink Tumors,” by Jo Willey of the UK Daily Express.
Well, NHS Choices took a look at the study and detailed how the mushroom extract was only used on bladder cells in culture. Throughout their review and in the conclusion that follows, they specifically took to task the story in the Daily Express:
The findings of this study should be considered as preliminary ones that may lead to further research.
The findings that a combination of interferon alpha (a common immunotherapy for bladder cancer) and the PDF extract can reduce bladder cancer cell growth in a laboratory setting are the first step towards future studies. However, the potential benefits of PDF as a combination treatment for bladder cancer will only be established through studies to fully assess toxicity and longer-term benefits and harms. Investigating new treatments in this way is often a lengthy process, usually beginning with animal studies and only later followed by human studies.
It is too soon to claim, as the Daily Express has, that maitake mushrooms are a cure for cancer. The substance tested was only a chemical extract of the mushrooms, and this study provides no evidence that either the extract or the mushrooms themselves have health benefits in humans. People should resist the temptation for people to eat large amounts of mushrooms if they develop bladder cancer, as it is not clear from this research if any potentially active ingredients can even be absorbed through digestion. It is also unclear whether the effects of high doses in humans are harmful.
In fact, it’s even worse than that. The mushroom extract only killed bladder carcinoma cells in culture following a 72 hr exposure at concentrations of 400 and 700 μg/mL, with only about 53% cell growth inhibition at the highest concentration. The 75% number came from the degree of growth inhibition by the maitake extract at 200 μg/mL together with 10,000 U/mL of interferon-α2b.
These are extremely high concentrations of a natural product extract, even when one considers that the cytotoxic or cytostatic compound(s) in the mushroom might be present at very low concentrations. Most natural products studies in the literature usually establish a cutoff of activity at 5 or 20 μg/mL and some even consider that level to be overly optimistic. Therefore, the long-term importance of this work will require some isolation and characterization of these compounds before one would even consider embarking on further studies for selective toxicity and effectiveness in animal models of human bladder cancer, much less clinical trials in patients with bladder cancer.
But I point out this post from NHS Choices not only because they criticize the irresponsible overinterpretation of scientific results in the popular press. Instead, I wanted to point out how they presented the story. (And I wish I knew the name of the author(s) so I could give them proper personal credit.).
The article starts with the title, “Mushroom extract ‘fights cancer,’” to be sure to draw in search engine hits using keywords also used by the misleading stories. The article then presents the representation of the work by the Daily Express. . .
The Daily Express has reported this study poorly and has made claims that are not supported by this piece of research. The newspaper does not make it clear that this was a laboratory study, and its description of the study methods is not consistent with the research itself.
. . .and then takes it apart systematically, clearly, and concisely, using the following headers:
- Where did the story come from?
- What kind of research was this?
- What did the research involve?
- What were the basic results?
- How did the researchers interpret the results?
This logical approach makes it easy for someone with average intelligence, especially a patient or family member interested in bladder cancer treatments, to understand the real facts of the study. The text is neither too dense nor too lengthy, yet still gets the keys points across.
The writer(s) then concluded with two links:
- Links to the headlines
- Links to the science
I was ecstatic to see the link directly to the abstract at the journal website. Unfortunately, this is not an open-access journal and many readers, even those at some academic institutions, might not have subscription access to the full paper. But at least the article provides one with the direct hyperlink to the primary source.
I know that dead-tree editors might say that doing so would clutter up a print story. But why could this not become common practice for any online press portal?
I thank the good people at NHS Choices for giving us a good example of how to do it right. I only hope that when all Americans are given the opportunity for basic health care that our agencies will be as informative.
In the meantime, I shall look to enjoy maitake mushroom extracts in this form (with other mushrooms, too!):
Photo credit: Tiny Urban Kitchen blog by Jen, a chemist from Cambridge, MA.
Louie, B., Rajamahanty, S., Won, J., Choudhury, M., & Konno, S. (2009). Synergistic potentiation of interferon activity with maitake mushroom d-fraction on bladder cancer cells BJU International DOI: 10.1111/j.1464-410X.2009.08870.x