Science Mis-Communication: Using the word “Cure” too liberally


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As a science writer, journalist or blogger, how comfortable would you be using the word “cure” in a headline or lead of a science news piece on a new medical treatment?

I thought about this when a science communicator I interviewed told me a story about how they received over-hopeful messages from readers after writing a particular press release:

“I wrote a press release when I was in grad school on my own research, and it was in blood cells in a petri-dish. And there were patients calling as soon as the press release came out, wanting to know when a drug would be available for them. And, and it did talk about how it was cured… it was cured, but it was in cells. So I think that’s one of my concerns, is biomedical, because I think the issue is that the public could become a little immune to the next gene for this, next discovery for that, kind of thing, and it’s just one after another, and none of it really turns into anything. That you have to be careful that you explain that science is a process, and perhaps even throw in some numbers about how long it might take to get there, so they’re not frustrated that it’s not immediately available.” [Anonymous quote]

I would think that many science communicators today would be wary of this terminology, but it still occurs rather frequently. Just this week, an ABC Health Watch ran the headline New drugs cure Hepatitis C without side effects. Later on in the article, the reporter states that a new era of Hep C drugs “could” cure the disease, already revealing that the headline claims more than the main text does.

Perhaps we need a definition of “cure” to know when we can properly use it, and when we can’t.

"Normally when you say 'cure', you mean eradication of the virus from the body," a story in The Independent quotes Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, a Nobel Prize-winning HIV Aids scientist. "But this is going to be very difficult, not to say impossible. However, there is another definition of cure, which is a 'functional cure'. This means people can be treated with drugs or whatever, and they will be able to stop their treatment and continue to control the virus without treatment. It is like remission in cancer."

So perhaps the ABC Health Watch story should have run: New drugs could offer a functional cure of Hepatitis C without side effects.

But in short, if the word “cure” refers to the complete eradication of a disease or disease agent from the body, than very few headlines that use the word are being intellectually honest.

Could it be a 'cure'? Breakthrough prompts Down syndrome soul-searching, was a headline that ran in NBC News in August, prompted by an announcement by Massachusetts scientists “that they’ve found a way to silence the chromosome that causes trisomy 21, also known as Down syndrome.” The article featured the story of a 14-year old girl with Down syndrome and her hopeful mother.

According to the NBC article and a host of others I found online, the new treatment is being “[h]ailed as a ‘cure in a Petri dish,’” by scientists at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. A July 2013 TakeAway article quotes Dr. Brian Skotko, co-director of the Down Syndrome Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor at Harvard Medical School: "it is possible, at least in a Petri dish, to be able to turn off that extra chromosome." But note that Skotko didn't say “cure.” And while he does talk about the implications of a “cure” in the NBC article, other responsible researchers have been careful to point out that the research is still early in its development.

For example, an article on MassLive ran this more toned-down headline and lead:

UMass researchers turn off Down syndrome chromosome

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester have found a method to block the extra chromosome that causes developmental disabilities and a delay in cognitive ability in people with Down syndrome. Though it has yet to be tried beyond the laboratory, researchers believe it can help design targeted treatments.

The research study in question, published in Nature magazine, is described by its authors as a “major first step towards potential development of ‘chromosome therapy,’” but certainly not a cure or even a near-term treatment. Nature also wrote about the study here.

The NBC article on the study only redeems itself slightly near its end, as reporter JoNel Aleccia writes:

“That strong reaction surprised Jeanne Lawrence, the professor of cell and developmental biology who led the research. People may misunderstand the scope and promise of her work, she said.

It likely wouldn't be possible to ‘cure’ Down syndrome, because the condition occurs at conception, she said.

‘Even looking forward really far, I don’t see how we could fundamentally change a person who has trisomy 21 to silence all the chromosomes in their body,’ said Lawrence.”

So tell me again, why did the headline run “Could it be a ‘cure’?” and talk of a major breakthrough for treatment?

But NBC News is not the only news outlet guilty of featuring headline cures. A Policymic article recently ran the headline Cure For Cancer? New Drug Which Decimates Tumors Approved For Human Testing for a story about a CD47 antibody-blocking drug that was recently shown to have positive effects… in mice. A NewsMaxHealth article on the same study, titled Cancer Drug Kills Every Kind of Tumor: Study, touted a “new anti-cancer weapon that some have described as a kind of medical Holy Grail.”

Hardly. But the keyword was used by one of the authors of the study in a NewsMaxHealth quote:

“’We showed that even after the tumor had taken hold, the antibody can either cure the tumor or slow its growth and prevent metastasis,’ said biologist Irving Weissman of the Stanford University School of Medicine, in an interview with Science Magazine.”

Whether the biologist is using the term correctly here or not – assuming that he means that the cancer was completely eradicated from treated mice – his use of the term “cure” may have given the reporter license to apply the concept more liberally.

Other “cures” in the news recently:

What do you think… have you ever used the term “cure” in a science news article to capture readers? Do you think the use of this term is too liberal today? I’d propose that science journalists should rarely if ever use this language to describe a finding, short of the researcher calling it so him- or herself.

And even then, perhaps just because a scientist talks of a “cure” to an eager reporter, doesn't mean that the science journalist can’t talk about what this means in the context of actual vs. ‘functional’ cures, and what research and testing is left to do in order to make the “cure” a reality.


3 Responses to “Science Mis-Communication: Using the word “Cure” too liberally”

  1. Graham Steel (@McDawg) Reply | Permalink

    I've been actively involved in Patient Advocacy for 12 years. Rather than using the word "cure", I opt for "treatment" or "putative treatment".

  2. Bob Roehr Reply | Permalink

    While I agree with the general thrust of your article – cure is mis and over-used – you significantly undercut your arguments with a stunning lack of understanding of the basic science behind HIV and HCV, and hence the concept of cure.

    The Françoise Barré-Sinoussi quote, and I heard her say the same thing at the HIV Cure conference that preceeded the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July 2012, pertains to virus like HIV that integrates itself into the DNA of resting host immune cells. This makes it extremely difficult to eliminate the virus and achieve a “cure” as traditionally envisioned. Hence B-S’s suggestion of a “functional cure” as a potential goal for clinical medicine.

    In contrast, HCV does not integrate itself in such a manner. People are cured of HCV infection all the time. About 15-20 percent of persons infected with the virus clear it naturally, with no chronic infection.

    Therapies have been able do that as well with increasing rates of success. That began decades ago with interferon alfa monotherapy, where the cure rate was in the single digits and side effects of therapy were significant. Subsequent generations of improved therapy have reduced side effects and improved the cure rate to up to 90+ percent for some genotypes of HCV.

    Cure is defined as a complete clearance of HCV, with no detection using PCR, a minimum of six months and often years and decades after the fact.

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