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Complete Health Reporting: Where Do I Buy That Wonder Pill?

Complete Health Reporting: Where Do I Buy That Wonder Pill?

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If you happen to be one of the few people on the planet who did not see The Avengers movie (me) or the Batman sequels (me) or the Spider-Man remake (ditto), you might think that superhero movies are as inevitable as the changing of the seasons. You can expect one every few months, and you can expect them to sell hulking heaps of tickets.

Tell that to the bloggers who write about comic books and comic book films.

Pick a superhero. From the big brand name of Wonder Woman to the must-be-a-parody Ant-Man, there is perpetual speculation about how soon the movie will be in theaters – if ever. And these bloggers, while mostly enthusiasts for the general enterprise, are always skeptical. Here’s how Modern Myth Media recently described plans for a Wonder Woman movie:

MMM has received word from a new source close to Warner Bros. indicating the studio is developing a Wonder Woman film for a potential 2013 release. While this new source appears to be legitimate, take this news with a grain of salt. Even our source admits that the project is in very early developmental stages, meaning that Warner Bros. is far off from actually committing to this production.

Contrast this with the way many health stories describe emerging treatments. Here’s a recent MSNBC headline: Gene healing in a lotion? Researchers say they’re close.

But the story itself provides ample reason for a much more cautious approach. How close is “close”? Well, this gene-healing lotion is still being tested in mice. Is that a good reason to write with this kind of zeal?

Most people who buy cosmetic lotions and potions know that while the people working behind the department store makeup counters may wear white lab coats, the stuff they sell is more about packaging than science. But a Northwestern University team is bucking that image, reporting today that they’ve created a way to regulate genes affecting the skin -- merely by applying moisturizer.

Not only could their technology pave the way for cosmetics that actually work, but it also might also prove to be a valuable weapon in fighting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, or diseases like psoriasis, and wounds like the intractable sores that often plague diabetics.

Months? Years? A decade? Is that close?

If you are not careful, you can easily give the impression that the drug or device will be on shelves within days, even though often the process for developing a drug or device can take years. And often new treatments are detoured or scrapped entirely.

The MSNBC story hinted at this when describing the technology that would be required to fix genes with a moisturizer. The goal is to fix a patient’s DNA by adding pieces of genetic material – called short interfering RNA, or siRNA – directly to a person’s cells. The MSNBC story noted:

Ten years ago, scientists predicted a new era of siRNA therapies, but the hype machine ran into a roadblock: how to deliver siRNAs into cells and make them regulate the target gene and not cause any collateral damage.

All the more reason to be as skeptical as a comic book fan when you hear researchers claim that something “may soon be” available. Is the treatment still in the laboratory phase? Have they moved to animal studies? How many people have been enrolled in clinical trials?

The path to commercialization is likely years in the making. When a researcher or a company is more specific about a prediction of something being on the market in a certain number of years, you need to ask how they arrived at that prediction. There also should be some sense of history – of the thousands of previous flashes in the pan in medical research that also seemed exciting at the time but ultimately were unsuccessful.

One key thing to remember – which I have mentioned before – is that just because a treatment has been approved by the FDA does not mean that it is completely safe, that it is the best treatment option or that it is guaranteed to succeed. wrote about a potential Justice League of America film that “this film is almost certainly doomed to fall apart before it can even get going.”

We need a little dose of that kind of reality in health reporting.

Image by JD Hancock via Flickr

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