Sunday, 21 October 2007

Tangerine dreams

From the BBC, Tangerine peel 'kills cancer': the latest in a standard news formula of some substance that has been shown to kill cancer cells in the test tube, but without clinical trials to show whether or not it will do the same in patients. I picked up on this one because it's an interesting example of news reports that don't tell the full story. The article says:

A team from Leicester School of Pharmacy found Salvestrol Q40 was turned into a toxic compound in cancer cells, destroying them ... Lead researcher Dr Hoon Tan said his work was still at an early stage, but together with his colleagues he has formed a company to investigate further the potential to develop natural anti-cancer therapies".

This sounds very early days. You'd not guess from this rather cautious and academic description that the company concerned, Nature's Defence, is well under way promoting and selling Salvestrol to consumers through the sites Fruit Force, and Campaign Against Perfection (all registered to Nature's Defence) as well as training resellers and naturopathic practitioners in Canada ( Nor is it a very new story: a year ago, in Trademarked Science Trade-Offs, Le Canard Noir covered the same topic, questioning the ethics of what appears to be overpromotion: marketing a substance as having specific effects before clinical trials have demonstrated any such thing in vivo.
      As mentioned in the 2006 BBC story about the same group, Fruit 'could provide cancer hope', Cancer Research UK "does not endorse any supplement or drugs which have not been rigorously tested in clinical trials". And rightly so: the Cancer Act 1939 still stops anyone advertising anything that can be construed as offering a cure for cancer. Unsurprisingly, then, none of the UK Nature's Defence sites mention the c-word or are specific on what Salvestrol does - only that it's some kind of beneficial phytonutrient that needs topping up in the modern diet. (I wonder if they had to backtrack from their original 2004 website that skated far closer to explicit claims of anti-cancer action for their supplements - see Introducing Salvestrol Therapy). But now they don't need to say it: that part is neatly filled in by the BBC story, which is free to report the anti-cancer action because it's divorced from the commercial context and framed purely as a blue-sky academic possibility.
      One area where the BBC could improve its health coverage would be to take more care over stories that give, however inadvertently, publicity or endorsement to unproven neutraceuticals. A classic example, as Language Log noted in 2005 - Enhance breast size by 80% - was the free gift the BBC gave - Chewing gum can 'enhance breasts' to vendors of a breast-enhancement chewing gum. Google "Bust-Up Gum" BBC and see how many vendors are citing the story.

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