Press release journalism and the faulty press release

Curcumin (diferuloylmethane) is the primary component of turmeric root.

Once you spend enough time in the area of pharmacology dealing with natural products and plant medicines, you tend to see a fair bit of overextrapolation of data from in vitro cell models using concentrations of compounds that just simply can’t be achieved in the human body. It’s certainly attractive to think that we might “cure” cancer with Indian food, for example. I, for one, would be most happy to eat my way to health with chicken tikka masala. But as I have written elsewhere, cancer research work with Indian spices like turmeric that sound promising often tend to be unlikely to have real world application.

I understand that many folks working in journalism today simply go by the information in press releases. For that reason, it becomes much more important that those in academic institution press offices exercise a high level of integrity and journalistic responsibility in composing releases that promote the work of their investigators.

That’s why this press release appearing in my e-mail queue two days ago perked up my bullshit radar:


The title for this press release would indicate to me that a chemical in turmeric (sometimes spelled “tumeric”) was tested in people receiving chemotherapy for head and neck cancer. I might expect to see information following about how the patients were selected, what the chemotherapy was, what turmeric product was used, and what endpoints were used to determine suppression of head and neck cancers. I might also expect to learn whether the drug-turmeric combination that presumably worked against the cancer might have also increased the magnitude of chemo side effects.

So, what did we learn? See the press release:

Curcumin, the major component in the spice turmeric, when combined with the drug Cisplatin enhances the chemotherapy’s suppression of head and neck cancer cell growth, researchers with UCLA’s Jonsson Cancer Center have found.

A naturally occurring spice widely used in South Asian and Middle Eastern cooking, Turmeric has long been known to have medicinal properties, attributed to its anti-inflammatory effects. Previous studies have shown it can suppress the growth of certain cancers, said Dr. Marilene Wang, a professor of head and neck surgery, lead author of the study and a Jonsson Cancer Center researcher.

“Head and neck cancers, particularly cases diagnosed in a later stage, are terrible cancers that often require very radical surgeries and chemotherapy and radiation,” Wang said. “They often don’t present until late, and the structures in the head and neck are so vital that our treatments often cause disfigurement and severe loss of function. So using non-toxic curcumin as a treatment was a very appealing idea.”

The study, done in cells in Petri dishes and then in mouse models, appears in the October issue of the journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics. [emphasis mine]

The first paragraph – and the use of the word “chemotherapy” – implies that the studies were done in humans. Paragraph two cites the lead author talking about what appear to be human studies but are, at best, studies of human cancer cell xenografts in mice. The third paragraph speaks to the dire nature of late-stage head and neck cancers.

Not until the fourth paragraph does the press release finally make note that the chemotherapy and spice component were used in isolated cell culture and a mouse model of human cancer. It’s actually a well-designed study (MCT abstract here) and the active component, curcumin, was given to mice via intravenous injection of a liposomal form of curcumin rather than orally, a route where curcumin is very poorly bioavailable. The pharmaceutical formulation of curcumin that is then administered intravenously is a far cry from having a good curry.

In this case, the press release wasn’t picked up widely. But the outlets that did post articles – MyHealthNewsDaily and – seemed to make it sound as though we are making progress with turmeric in patients with cancer. With patients? Not yet. But things are looking pretty good for mice.

I should note that the UCLA press release was otherwise reasonably written. A minor point is the improper use of capital-C-Cisplatin – cisplatin is the generic name, otherwise known as the United State Adopted Name (USAN) or the International Nonproprietary Name (INN) whereas the brand name Platinol is capitalized.

I just don’t appreciate that the release went out to journalist e-mail accounts with such a sensational headline and potentially misleading opening text. I know better. Others may not.

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3 Responses to Press release journalism and the faulty press release

  1. It’s unfortunate that some pick these up and run with them. I often wonder if this contributes to the ‘conspiracy theories’ among the public that academic scientists and pharma companies are withholding life-saving/changing treatments to make a buck… not realizing that those treatments are still far from being reality.

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  3. Gaythia says:

    I think that we need to focus on the originators of these faulty press releases more than those that “pick these up and run with them”. On what basis could an ordinary news outlet be expected not to accept at face value output from a major research university? I think that it is a good idea to get the public to focus more on diet and health implications. On the other hand, feeding them a steady stream of less than substantiated “scientists say” articles is, in my opinion,fueling a lot of anti-scientist attitudes. I believe that figuring out mechanisms for reminding leading educational and research institutions of their responsibilities to curb overly enthusiastic PR agents and to preserve their scientific credibility would be highly worthwhile.

    I also think that there is an interesting connection to be made between this post and the previous one here about Royce Murray and “the problem of science bloggers”. Where is peer review most active anyway? (note Bora’s pingback here for example)