KSJ Tracker August 16, 2012

Scientists can block heroin addiction now?

No. Scientists cannot block addiction now. But you wouldn't know it from this release put out by the University of Adelaide:

Scientists can now block heroin, morphine addicition

In a major breakthrough, an international team of scientists has proven that addiction to morphine and heroin can be blocked, while at the same time increasing pain relief.

If I were addicted to heroin, I guess I'd toddle off to Australia to get my addiction blocked now. 

Further along in the release, the researchers from Adelaide and the University of Colorado say that clincial trials "may be possible within the next 18 months." The release does not note that according to the abstract, the research was done in mice and rats. Results would presumably appear a year, or two or three, after clinical trials begin, if they do begin. Apparently the use of the word "now" in the release means sometime in the next few years--maybe. That's stretching the meaning of "now" just a bit, don't you think? Memo to those who are addicted: Don't book that Australian flight just yet, matey. Unless you are a mouse.

Scicurious, a Ph.D. neurophysiologist who blogs anonymously, summarizes the research this way in a post at Scientific American:

But let’s get the big questions out of the way first: 

1. Is this paper good? Oh yes! Really neat! Cool new mechanism!

2. Does it “block” heroin addiction? No.

Scicurious walks her readers through the study in considerable detail, and points out data suggesting that naloxone--used to block addiction--could help with pain relief. "This is HUGE," she writes. "There have been very few recent breakthroughs in pain pharmacology, and a drug like this has a lot of potential." 

Janice Wood at PsychCentral is a little more cautious than the press release when writing this story, but she does something she shouldn't have, and she probably knows it. She quoted the lead researcher extensively, making it appear that she interviewed him. But the quotes are taken directly from the press release. Nothing wrong with that, if only she had added "said in a press release."

Jennifer Brown at The Denver Post (the senior author of the study is at the University of Colorado), writes, "Breakthrough research from scientists at CU-Boulder is good news for heroin addicts and people in pain who are addicted to morphine." Good news someday, maybe. And a breakthrough? We'll have to wait and see.  

Incidentally, the University of Colorado put out essentially the same release, without the word "now."

I didn't spend hours searching, but I didn't see many stories on this potentially important story, and I didn't see any that treated it with the depth and intelligence that Scicurious did.

-Paul Raeburn







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