Bad News Flash: Scientists Did Not Cure Autism, Cancer Or Alzheimer’s

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This week I’m calling out some recent headlines about medical “breakthroughs” that were wildly misleading. Even when the science itself is good, bad reporting raises false hopes and eventually undermines the public’s confidence. At some point, people will just no longer believe the headlines claiming that someone has once again cured cancer.

My first example of bad news is from a couple of weeks ago. I was struck by a headline that showed up in one of my news feeds that read:

Neuroscientists reverse autism symptoms

Wow, I thought. This would be a real breakthrough if it were true. I traced the headline back to the MIT press office, where I then saw the subheading: “turning on a gene later in life can restore typical behavior in mice.” Uh oh: Extrapolating any treatment from mice to humans is fraught with problems, and studying a complex behavioral disorder like autism is even more difficult.

The HuffPo fell for it, though. Their headline read, “Some Autism Symptoms May Be Reversed By Gene Editing, Scientists Suggest.” So did the Daily Mail, which went with this headline:
Reversing autism ‘at the flick of a switch’: ‘Turning on’ a single gene in mice has been found to reduce autistic behaviours

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At least they mentioned mice in the headline. But then they wrote that “scientists have announced a major breakthrough in treating the genetic cause of the spectral condition.” Sorry, but there’s no new treatment available. (Never mind the poor writing that used “spectral condition” to describe autism spectrum disorder.)

What did the researchers actually do? They studied a gene (see the paper here) that is already known to be associated with autism in humans–though only about 1% of cases–and that has already been shown to affect the behavior of mice as well. They created a means of “fixing” this gene in mice, and showed that it can restore some of the mouse behaviors to normal. My assessment: This is nice incremental work on a gene that seems to affect behavior in both mice and humans. I don’t see it leading to any advances in the treatment of human autism for at least a decade, if ever.

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