October 20, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Stroke story stem cell hype analysis: 9 very different headlines

I wrote yesterday about two cases of science media hype on CRISPR and on stem cells for strokes. The latter case on stem cell hype stirred the most discussion and even some harsh words in the comments.

As this stem cell stroke story on an encouraging but very small, preliminary study has unfolded across the mainstream and other media in the past 24 hours, a whole range of headlines for it have popped up. I’ve got a screenshot of a Google result for this story below with 9 headlines all related to the same science. I find it interesting how variable the headlines are.

stem cells stroke hypeSome are reasonable such as the one on Bradley Fikes piece at the San Diego Union Tribune, although to nit pick I would have added the word “small” to describe the study. Again it is generally editors and not writers who pick the titles.

On the other end the worst I’ve seen so far, outpacing the hyped headline in the Washington Post, comes to us from a usual hype suspect, The Daily Mail: “Stroke patients to work, talk, and live a normal life after stem cell treatment”. This irresponsibly suggests a cure for all patients.

Keep in mind again this was a very small and preliminary study. If it holds up and clear benefit and safety are proven in a large trial then some (but not all) of these headlines could be more reasonable.  One might think from the headlines above that this was a large Phase III study or something like that.

The science behind this study seems rigorous and the early results encouraging, but caution is needed in media coverage so as to not mislead patients or generate oversized expectations that may never be met.

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