KSJ Tracker August 13, 2013

NY Times on cancer-autism link: Not so fast.

On Sunday, Gina Kolata of The New York Times wrote a piece on what the headline described as "autism's unexpected link to cancer genes." Autism is more common than normal in some individuals with a mutation in what's called the PTEN gene, she wrote. And the scientists she quoted were divided on the significance of the finding.

At Forbes, Emily Willingham was sharply critical of Kolata's story, arguing that the finding is not new, that she didn't properly describe the kind of autism involved, and that she needlessly frightened parents, who might now worry that their children with autism faced an increased threat of cancer.

I found Kolata's story difficult to evaluate, because, as Willingham points out, it's confusing. I emailed Evan Eichler of the University of Washington, who's quoted in the story and who has done research on PTEN, to ask him about the piece.

"The link here is at the gene level, not between...autism and cancer etiology or risk at present," he wrote back. He sent links to a variety of studies finding that mutations in certain genes, not only PTEN, can give rise to cancer and to brain disorders of one sort or another in children. "It's unclear to me whether individuals with these disorders also show elevated risk of cancer. If not, it would be interesting to know why not."

He said he also found the story confusing, with "a lot of different ideas being simultaneously pursued and perspectives that are not sufficiently explained/developed for the lay reader."

If you read Kolata's story, you should read Willingham's response. This seems to be an important scientific development, but it doesn't seem to have any practical relevance yet for children with autism.

-Paul Raeburn


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