Embargo Watch

Keeping an eye on how scientific information embargoes affect news coverage

A truly appalling press release from Cell Press on “life-extending red wine ingredient”

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It’s common — but still important — for scientists to call reporters to the carpet for sloppy and sensationalistic coverage of medical studies. But sometimes it’s just as important to point out when prestigious journals hype the hell out of studies that probably don’t deserve any coverage at all.

Take a press release from Elsevier’s Cell Press about a Cell Metabolism study of the red wine compound resveratrol in mice. The headline is enough to make you want to get drunk:

Study resolves controversy on life-extending red wine ingredient, restores hope for anti-aging pill

“Resolves controversy?” This, of course, is the compound whose trials Glaxo Smith Kline stopped after paying $720 million for a company developing resveratrol called Sirtis. The release is cagey about why those trials ended (hint: kidney problems). But the release doesn’t stop there:

The study also provides insight into another important aspect of the resveratrol controversy. Doubts had arisen in part because the red wine ingredient seems to act in different ways at different doses. The study by Sinclair and colleagues clears those details up, too.

So, everything’s cleared up. Step right up, get your resveratrol right here! What’s that? You can’t carry it home, because you are a…mouse?

Then there’s this:

George Vlasuk, CEO of Sirtris, who was not involved in the new study, says the findings in Cell Metabolism offer the “first definitive evidence” for a direct link between SIRT1 and the metabolic benefits of resveratrol.

Perhaps Vlasuk wasn’t involved in the study, but lead author David Sinclair founded Sirtris, the $720 million company, and is co-chair of its advisory board. If Cell Press meant to imply that Vlasuk and Sirtris had nothing to do with the new study, they need to re-evaluate what “not involved” means.

Not surprisingly, the release and study led to coverage. Among the better stories was Nature’s, who says that controversy isn’t so neatly resolved.

Speaking of Nature, perhaps Cell Press could take a page from Nature’s press releases, which always include this line:

HYPE: We take great care not to hype the papers mentioned on our press releases, but are sometimes accused of doing so. If you ever consider that a story has been hyped, please do not hesitate to contact us at press@nature.com, citing the specific example.

At least Cell Press isn’t alone. As Yoni Freedhoff noted in March, a BMJ press release hyped a study of the link between white rice and diabetes by forgetting the distinction between correlation and causation.


Written by Ivan Oransky

May 1, 2012 at 6:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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