10 April 2013
Stories about science in the media are often misleading and over-hyped. In today’s science column, Kerry Gordon discusses why.
After reading the sign posts proclaiming, Meet the duo who beat HIV in October 2012 and HIV baby cured, say scientists in March this year, you’d be forgiven for thinking that by now you could wander into your nearest clinic and get a pill to cure HIV/AIDS. And it’s not just with HIV. SA pioneers breakthrough in Malaria cure was another headline infecting South African cities in August 2012, claiming a “potential single-dose cure” for malaria . The truth is that we’re still far from being able to scratch HIV/AIDS, malaria or TB off our list of deadly infectious diseases. So why are the headlines so misleading?
To understand the truth, you need to know the facts behind the hype. In the case of the “Meet the duo who beat HIV” headline, this is all to do with the quest to find an HIV/AIDS vaccine. One approach is to study the people who naturally control the HIV infection, and don’t easily develop AIDS. They seem to make antibodies—proteins that protect us from infections like HIV or flu—that are more effective than those of regular people and can attack different strains of HIV. Scientists are looking at these antibodies and trying to figure out how they work, and what part of the virus they’re attacking. With this knowledge, it might be possible to make a vaccine.
What whipped the media into a frenzy last year was that a laboratory at the National Health Laboratory Services in Johannesburg, who are part of the CAPRISA consortium, discovered a part of the virus that was vulnerable to these broadly neutralising antibodies. They had collected viruses from two HIV-infected women—the duo referred to in the headline—starting from just after infection began and continuing for several years, so they had a history of the infection. They were able to see the ways in which the virus was mutating within the human body to evade the immune system, and the different antibodies that the body was creating to fight back.
This is a great discovery if you’re betting on the hope of getting a vaccine from broadly neutralising antibodies, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll work. Even when we do manage to develop a potential vaccine in a lab, we still need to test how safe and effective it is in people – pushing it through a barrage of clinical trials, which can take at least 10 years, or more. So to say that this is brings us closer to an HIV/AIDS vaccine might be true, but it’s also very misleading. The two women did not “beat” HIV. As the body of the newspaper report explained, one was alive on antiretroviral treatment. The other had died of TB.
The “potential single-dose cure” for malaria touted in the headlines was just as badly misreported. A team of scientists from the University of Cape Town, who are part of an international collaboration, made a drug that could kill off different types of the malaria parasite with a single dose, even the ones that are resistant to our current drugs. That was the bottom line in the newspapers. However, they did this by adding the drug to single cells in a petri dish (used for laboratory experiments) that are infected with the malaria parasite. They’re not quite sure how it works, and there’s no proof at all that this will be effective in a living person. Like the potential HIV vaccine, they have to perform clinical trials on the drug to see if it works in humans and is safe. And even if this all works out, there’s still no certainty that it will be better than the drugs that are already out there. Basically, it’s not a malaria cure yet, but it might be. We don’t know yet, and we won’t know for several years while the clinical trials are being done.
Big stories like this break because we want good news about these diseases; we want cures. There is also something at stake for the researchers. African scientists and governments are pushing hard to prove we can do science on the international playing field by, for example, being able to create a drug in a lab that goes through clinical trials and becomes an effective treatment, all on African soil. Curing one of the world’s high burden diseases like HIV or malaria would be a big win for us. Scientists talk to reporters and promote their discoveries so that they can get more funding for their research, and funding bodies like the Department of Science and Technology support the stories because it supports their agenda of promoting South African science. The media, in turn, needs bold, simple headlines to sell newspapers.
But scientific progress doesn’t normally happen with news-grabbing moments. Instead, it’s a long road of very small steps (sometimes not in a forward direction). We’re a long way off from a cure for HIV and drug resistant malaria, but every new discovery is a small victory in a long battle towards successful treatment or even a cure.
Misleading headlines in the newspapers can give people false hope, and lead them to mistrust future scientific discoveries. But the problem isn’t necessarily the science; it’s the agenda–-of the scientist sending out the press release, the politician proudly shaking their hands, the media spinning a discovery out of control. The more you are aware of these agendas, the easier you will find it to see through the attention-grabbing headlines, and read the real reports they hide, of the genuine progress we’re making, one small step at a time.
You can follow Kerry Gordon on twitter @Kerry_Gordon.