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19Jun 2013

Good news! After cancer is cured twice, we now have a cure for Diabetes!

Good news! After cancer is cured twice, we now have a cure for Diabetes!

In recent months, cancer has been cured twice--first by the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston (CNN was an important collaborator), and then by Time magazine. And now Children's Hospital Boston has cured Type 1 diabetes! O frabjous day!

"Boston Children’s Hospital could be on the verge of curing type 1 diabetes," writes Melissa Malamut at Boston magazine. "Seriously. This huge news, which was announced today on their blog, could affect the 215,000 people in the U.S. younger than 20 who have diabetes (type 1 or type 2)."


"It will still be a few years before they can test the therapies in children, but the outcome of what was discovered here could be truly amazing," Malamut writes. Testing new therapies usually takes a few years, so, depending upon your definition of "few"--let's say 3 to 5--we could be talking 6-10 years before the cure arrives, if indeed it is anything resembling a cure. That's not exactly "on the verge" (depending upon your definition of "verge").

The blog post that Malamut was reporting on was written by Tripp Underwood for Vector, the "science and clinical innovation blog" at Boston Children's Hospital. The blog is a marketing tool--its "co-editor," David Altman, is "a marketing and communications specialist in the Technology and Innovation Development Office (TIDO) at Children’s Hospital Boston."

Underwood avoids "cure" in the lede, but gets to it soon enough, in the third graf: "Fiorina is currently involved in new research targeting a molecular pathway that triggers diabetes in the first place—potentially providing a permanent cure," he writes. The reference is to Paulo Fiorina, a Boston Children's nephrologist, who likewise lacks restraint. "We found the root cause of diabetes," he tells Underwood, in a biochemical pathway that is "the early mechanism" that triggers the immune response that attacks islet cells in the pancreas, thus causing diabetes.

This is, in turn, based on a paper that came out in January in the journal Diabetes, where Fiorina and his colleagues are more circumspect. Instead of writing that this pathway is the early mechanism that triggers diabetes, they write that it has "a role" in the rejection of islet cell transplants. This suggests "a novel strategy" to prevent rejection of transplanted cells, they write. Not a cure for diabetes.

The paper is about transplant rejection, not about the root cause of diabetes. It's possible that what they've found could be important in the development of Type 1 diabetes, but that was not the experiment they did. And the work was done in mice.

All of this is a long, long way from a "cure."

We might not be surprised that the marketing folks have engaged in outlandish hype in promoting this story. Marketing folks are known to do that sort of thing. But the list of people who write for this marketing blog includes a large number of doctors and scientists at the hospital. They surely know better than this. Why do they allow their names to be associated with it?

I couldn't resist beginning this post with a smirk; I've seen this kind of thing so many times before. But let's end by thinking for a moment about people who have diabetes, or the parents and siblings of children with diabetes. What do they think when they read that researchers are on the "verge" of a cure? Did Children's Hospital think of them before it launched this campaign?

-Paul Raeburn


Agree with Peter.  Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater :)

It's an interesting idea. I fear, however, that competition and profits could easily overwhelm any such system.

Hi Paul! Thanks for the blog post. You know, reading it made me think that the medical research community might benefit from adopting/adapting the physics community's system for dealing with discovery and PR.

I don't know how it evolved, exactly. But at some point the physics community -- or at least, the particle physics community -- came to a consensus about what constitutes evidence, and what constituted a 'discovery.' They have very strict and specific guidelines about when they can publicly describe something as what -- a hierarchy of proof, if you will. They use that hierarchy to keep the PR people in line. I worked embedded within the Fermilab office of communications for three years when I was editing a publication about computing-enabled science. I attended a lot of their meetings. They were scrupulous about sticking to these guidelines. In fact, the only time I can think of when some result was overstated in the press was when a scientist who was a big overenthusiastic sent some tweets out that were not appropriate.

Setting up such a hierarchy of evidence in medical research would be substantially more complicated, of course. With physics, they were able to base it almost entirely on the statistical certainty of the result, which means they had a cut-off number. With medical research, there are different kinds of thresholds that are much less straighforward. Still, I wonder if they could borrow from the existing hierarchy of evidence-based medicine to come up with some guidelines? If the research community would unite behind these sorts of guidelines, then the PR people could be reined in as they were in the physics world.

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