Just before Thanksgiving, the nonprofit Translational Genomics Research Institute (TGen) in Phoenix issued a press release trumpeting a “significant breakthrough” in the treatment of glioblastoma multiforme, a rare but deadly type of tumor that affects the brain and central nervous system. Even better, TGen reported, the drug, called propentofylline, has already been approved by the FDA.
So imagine how thrilled Richard Sarti, who suffers from glioblastoma, was to hear that news. His sister-in-law, Vicki Smith, told Health News Review that the family grew excited when she shared the news with him, which Sarti took to his oncologist in the hopes of being treated.
Turns out, however, that the press release’s claims weren’t quite true, a TGen marketer sheepishly admitted in an email to Smith. Propentofylline has been approved — for use in dogs, not people. And while it has been used in experimental studies of patients with Alzheimer’s disease and certain other illnesses, it hasn’t been tested in people with glioblastoma. Sarti broke into tears when he learned that, Smith told Health News Review.
Think that’s an isolated incident? Think again. In late December, media officers at the VA San Diego had to backtrack after issuing a press release that appeared to overstate the potential harms of e-cigarettes, as some news reports pointed out, but not before uncritical coverage by others. The researchers even issued a clarification to their original release, which deftly negated the first: “Contrary to what was stated or implied in much of the news coverage resulting from this news release, the lab experiments did not find that e-cigarette vapor was as harmful to cells as cigarette smoke. In fact, one phase of the experiments, not addressed in the news release, found that cigarette smoke did in fact kill cells at a much faster rate.”
And let’s not forget the University of Maryland, which recently went all in on a study by one of its researchers about the wonders of a souped-up chocolate milk that purportedly improved cognitive performance in high school football players. Turns out the institution issued the release before the study was 1. Finished; 2. Peer-reviewed; 3. Published.
Although the university did note the findings were “preliminary and have not been subjected to the peer review scientific process,” that disclaimer came at the end of the press release — just before a paragraph explaining how the study was funded through a public-private partnership between the school and Maryland companies that have “generated more than $30.2 billion in revenue, added thousands of jobs to the region, and contributed to successful products,” including nutritional oils and a spiffy new drill bit.
That site — which, full disclosure, is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which also funds Retraction Watch — began critically reviewing press releases last year after a number of years of reviewing news stories. They’ve done more than 100 press release reviews so far, and while it’s too early to draw any conclusions, the preliminary results aren’t pretty. Releases “can’t seem to resist highlighting subgroup analyses” — slicing collections of patients into smaller groups by various criteria — “without explaining what these are or emphasizing that they need to be treated very cautiously,” and “often focus on tiny, short-term ‘proof of concept’ studies and miss the bigger picture.” Those findings are consistent with evidence that journals overemphasize weak research and that universities do the same. And we’ve seen press releases retracted because they were so awful.
This is the kind of scrutiny of press releases that Jesse Singal, of New York magazine, and Paul Knoepfler, of the University of California, Davis, both called for last month in separate articles. (Knoepfler, a stem cell scientist, recently prompted a research institute to correct a misleading release about a technique to “squeeze” cells into stem cells.)
To be sure, good university press releases do serve a useful purpose by informing reporters of potentially newsworthy developments. The trouble comes when credulous journalists accept these notices without skepticism — turning them from springboards to stories into stories themselves.
In a way, it’s understandable to a point. Universities and other science institutions that invest great sums on research want to promote their products as much as possible. To do so, they hire a cadre of skilled and savvy writers/marketers — many of whom have been forced to flee shrinking newsrooms — who craft press releases to be as sexy as possible. It’s a bit like selling stories to storytellers.
But none of that excuses offering the kind of false hope that TGen — which has yet to correct its release, we should note — provided the Sarti family.