Is it 'binge-and-purge' or 'whiplash'? --MW ANALYSIS: Scientific reporting using 'binge and purge' method Copyright 1998 Nando.net Copyright 1998 Scripps Howard (July 2, 1998 01:09 a.m. EDT http://www.nandotimes.com) - People desperately seeking new treatments for cancer and other diseases may face dashed hopes, frustration and much worse unless they recognize a disturbing trend in reporting medical news appears in especially blatant form on television. Science, one of the world's top scientific journals, just coined a term for this woeful phenomenon. Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, terms it the "binge-and-purge" school of science reporting. Everyone has seen this strange approach as new advances in medicine and science assume a higher profile and become more and more entertainment and less and less real news. Binge-and-purge reporting means that an advance in science gets over-enthusiastic initial news coverage. A whole wave of stories hype the discovery, with network news shows featuring the feat and presenting special in-depth reports. Then come a second wave of stories, often conveniently ignored or minimized by the TV folks, expressing all kinds of reservations about the initial report. That's the purge. But the refocusing often gets less prominence in terms of air time and placement than it does in magazines and newspapers. People sometimes are left with the impression that sweeping progress actually has been made against cancer and other diseases, when little of any immediate importance in terms of everyday treatment of a disease has happened. Science coined the term "binge and purge" in an article critical of recent news media coverage of the potential anti-cancer drugs, angiostatin and endostatin. Cancer clinics were swamped with phone calls from hopeful patients after a page one story in The New York Times characterized the drugs as likely to cure cancer within two years. Some patients wanted to stop or delay conventional chemotherapy and wait for angiostatin and endostatin. The Science article questioned why the Times displayed the report so prominently. The drugs had been under development for years, after all, and nothing really new had changed their status as promising drugs tested only in laboratory mice. Indeed, a dozen similar drugs, already being tested on people, have not lived up to hopes raised in lab experiments. The Times article, however, carefully mentioned that angiostatin and endostatin had not been tested in humans, and that other drugs, spectacularly effective against cancer in mice, proved disappointing when tried in people. But such key points were lost as the story blossomed on television, raising false hopes in millions of patients with cancer and their families. What points? For one, angiostatin and endostatin don't even exist as human drugs. Researchers have only enough to test on mice. It may take one year to produce enough for even a few patients. Science's report also mentions a few tidbits that may have escaped wider public note. The two most prominent scientists quoted in the Times story later denied making optimistic statements attributed to them. One was Nobel laureate James Watson, a physician quoted as stating that the drugs would cure cancer within two years. Another was Richard Klausner, National Cancer Institute chief, quoted as stating that NCI is giving the drugs top priority. It also turned out that a literary agent for the Times reporter was negotiating a book deal for the reporter, asking for an advance on royalties of $2 million. Other medical advances have been caught in the binge-and-purge approach. More face that fate in the future. During the binge, patients and families should avoid undue optimism about a cure. Be aware of the entertainment factor in TV news. Read news accounts carefully and critically. Don't throw away your old medicine. Don't pepper physicians with phone calls. Wait until all the cards have been dealt. By MICHAEL WOODS, Toledo Blade. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
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