Health in the Media: Curing Leukaemia
Posted on 28th January 2016 by Heidi Gardner
This week the media proclaimed that scientists had made a breakthrough that could ‘halt leukaemia in its tracks’. To me this seemed like a pretty huge headline, and one that if true should really have received more attention from the public. Have we really made such advances that leukaemia may be cured in the next few years? I take a look at the evidence to find out.
Firstly, it’s important for me to begin with the good news; I did find the original research article that corresponds to this news piece. The bad news is that it was behind a pay wall, so I had access only to the abstract. Personally I find this hugely infuriating, but the open access debate is deserved of a blog post in its own right (here are a few articles as a starting point if you’d like to delve into that issue further: 1, 2, 3).
Anyway, back to the point of this blog post – big potential in the world of curing leukaemia.
The Daily Mail’s post explains that scientists have found that ‘eliminating a protein essential for leukaemia cell growth can stop the disease from the progressing’. They go on to describe that the protein, called Hhex, is one which enables cancerous cells to grow uncontrollably. This protein isn’t needed by healthy blood cells, so removing it doesn’t cause patients any harm – the way this is written implies that we can simply remove the protein and cure leukaemia. This isn’t the case. Looking at the abstract of the original research article gives a much more detailed picture; this isn’t necessarily a criticism as the media are writing articles to allow the public to digest information, in a lot of cases the nitty-gritty of genetic and cell growth mechanisms will be at best not understood and at worst misunderstood by the general public. In actual fact, loss of Hhex leads to the expression of tumour suppressors, which are required for growth arrest. The research study has demonstrated the mechanism by which expression of Hhex causes the repression of tumour suppressor pathways; this is what enables the cancerous cells of acute myeloid leukaemia to keep on growing when they should have stopped.
Overall the way the media have reported this research study is although simplified, a good reflection of the meaning behind the original research (or what we can see from the abstract). Using phrases like ‘a HANDBREAK for leukaemia’ give the public the impression that we are very close to a cure for acute myeloid leukaemia, but again it’s difficult to strike a balance between communicating research effectively to the public, and conveying complicated scientific work. It would be interesting to see the data behind the research abstract – this would allow us to draw conclusions on the strength of the so-called handbreak; does Hhex completely stop cancer cell development? How easy is it to remove Hhex and how do we know that removing it has no long-term effects on the health of the patient? These are all questions we’re unable to answer at the moment. Still, this discovery is definitely a positive one and only time will tell if it really is paving the way to a cure.