In 1999, at a AAAS meeting in Anaheim, I wrote a story for BusinessWeek reporting that researchers had injected living human neurons into mice’s skulls, where the human neurons survived and spread until they “were fully wired into the mice’s brains.”
I went on to write that the mice “offer the promise of a new treatment for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, strokes, and spinal cord injuries, all of which lead to the destruction of brain cells.” I haven’t checked lately to see where this research stands, but I don’t think any of these things have yet come to pass, and it’s been 15 years since I wrote that story.
On Thursday, Gina Kolata of The New York Times wrote a story about a report that certain mutations in a single gene protect against heart attacks by reducing levels of triglycerides in the bloodstream.
She then wrote that “the findings are expected to lead to a push to develop drugs that mimic the effect of the mutations, potentially offering the first new class of drugs to combat heart disease in decades, experts say.” Care to hazard a guess at where that prediction will be in 15 years?
She included the usual escape clause, writing that “experts caution that drug development takes years and that there are no guarantees that new treatments will work as hoped,” which I did in my story, too. That story ended with, “Of course, whether the success in mice will be repeated in human beings is an unanswered question.”
Both stories were accurate, at least with regard to their forecasts. We said the research might lead to new drugs, and we cautioned that it might not.
But is this good enough? What Gina and I did in these stories–and what many of us have done in countless other stories–is to promise and then immediately renege on those promises.
While researchers often profess to be interested only in satisfying their intellectual curiosity–and for some of them, that’s true–most scientists studying triglycerides or neural transplants would be happier if the work did lead to new treatments, rather than not. So it’s important to say that new findings might lead to a new treatment. That’s why we care.
I think we need to step away from the boilerplate promise-and-unpromise paragraph that we’ve written so often, and query researchers more carefully about exactly how and when their research might lead to new treatments. What problems remain to be solved? What are the potential side effects? How much might it cost? Would the FDA be likely to approve it? Does it raise ethical questions?
We have to report the news, of course, but we might spend a few paragraphs raising and attempting to answer these questions, with the aim of making a more meaningful prognostication than simply “might lead to new treatments.”
We owe our readers that.