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When Popular Science Goes Rogue

In a recent article, the New York Times heralded with much fanfare a “potential breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research”. The scientific community, the relentless white coats that slog through repetitive minutiae in the pursuit of biological understanding, enjoy positive press as much as the next collective. However, too much of a good thing can be disastrous–especially in the case of overdrawn conclusions. Take these two famous case studies as an example: the retracted Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine study; and the discovery of Her2.

Infectious disease vaccines such as the MMR immunization are only as effective as their rate of administration. If a large portion of the population is not immune, the disease can spread rapidly from a single sick patient. The MMR vaccine was a routine shot given to children and worked well, dramatically reducing the incidence rate—until 1998. A lab infamously reported that an increased incidence of autism spectrum disorder was found amongst children to whom the MMR vaccine was administered. The release of these results caused a widespread panic, fueled somewhat by media companies. Needless to say, based on the findings, many parents refused to administer the vaccine to their children. Even though the study was subsequently retracted and debunked widely due to blatant forgery of results, the damage in the public psyche was done. Vaccines—and the MMR vaccine in particular–have never again been widely treated as innocuous, “why-not” precautions (exemplified in the controversy surrounding the recent HPV vaccine release). To this day, MMR outbreaks still crop up in the United States because a large portion of the population is unvaccinated.

Overblown hope can damage the scientific process as much as fear. The discovery of Her2, a tumor-specific marker of breast cancer was extremely exciting. Perhaps, went the common reasoning, it could be used to reliably eradicate breast cancers without all the side effects of conventional chemotherapy! Herceptin, a compound that tags Her2, was developed and tested, while the public waited with bated breath. The resulting increase in breast cancer survival rates was very encouraging, but nowhere near a cure all. 80% of breast cancer tumors do not respond to Herceptin alone—and, in some cases, the medicine caused recession, but not indefinitely. The survival rate for patients with “Her2 positive” tumors increased by 5 months: a beneficial medication, certainly, but hardly the cure everyone was waiting for. This type of disappointment with cancer research is common—but misses the implications entirely. Not all of the tumors that failed to respond to Herceptin treatment were classified as “Her2 negative”. This signaled to scientists that another important contributing factor to breast cancer was lurking, undiscovered. Since the Herceptin clinical trials, estrogen receptors have emerged as a major player in breast cancer pathology—and, a revamped, highly specific variation of Herceptin has been shown to improve survival in Stage 4 breast cancer patients (previously the event horizon for cancer survival). The problem with “drug disappointment” is not a lack of glory for the scientists but rather, a lack of public backing for further funding. When a drug is sensationalized then doesn’t live up to its expectations, the public are much less likely to pay attention when further drugs for the same affliction are sensationalized. Though petty, this fatigue figures directly into further funding for research—public donations and private grants alike.

The takeaway from these anecdotes is simple: scientific papers are fallible in a couple of ways. The first way is intrinsic–scientist error, improper peer review, largely drawn conclusions on the author end, and even outright forgery. The second way is consumer error–media sensationalism, excitement-induced false conclusions, and inception of incorrect scientific paradigms. Scientific literature should be treated with a respectable level of skepticism to avoid begging the question. Published research is robust but not bulletproof, and is often skewed or misinterpreted. In a world where the squeakiest wheel gets the biggest grant, media driven public enthusiasm matters.

So what does this mean about the aforementioned “Alzheimer’s breakthrough”? The potential conclusion of the reader to think this discovery is a “silver bullet” is certainly false. However, there is good reason to be excited. TREM2, the susceptibility gene in question, is only the second gene to be classified as an Alzheimer’s risk factor. The scientific precedent has now been set for more genetics to play into the multiplicitous avenues by which Alzheimer’s manifests itself. The two convergent studies (lending added credibility, seeing as these studies came from different labs and thus, scientists) also indelibly implicate the immune system in Alzheimer’s Disease–thus, opens the door to many alternative therapeutic targets, giving scientists a better shot at finding something (or a combination of somethings) that really works.

It may not be a silver bullet, yet, even when vetted, this is a big deal. You may now celebrate.

Currently Listening to: Ke$ha – Die Young.

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About Kyle

"I'm so enriched by my friends' political Facebook statuses and tweets!" said no one ever. So then we made a blog to continue said opinions over more that 140 characters. Op-eds, partisan-ship, unbiased reporting, pop culture, and book recommendations. Look at the headers, n00b.

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