No, this is not about sex. Ejaculation doesn’t only mean discharge of semen, it also means “a short, sudden emotional utterance.” People make verbal ejaculations when they’re excited or have something important to say. Headlines are frequently ejaculations. They often express premature enthusiasm, hyping the questionable results of a new research study as if it were already well-established truth. They may trumpet “Cancer cured!” when the accompanying article describes a minor improvement (not a cure) in laboratory rats. The headline is designed not for accuracy, but to entice the reader to read on. In a recent example, Tissue Nanotransfection (TNT) was hyped as a one-time, one-second, noninvasive cure for everything. It was a clear case of premature ejaculation.
Stem cells are promising
Stem cells have captured the imagination of the public. They are “sexy.” They offer the hope of eventually being able to fix anything that might go wrong with the body from injury, disease, or aging. Unscrupulous clinics in the US and around the world are already offering various kinds of stem cell treatments. In most cases, the treatments they offer have not been tested for effectiveness or safety and they can be harmful, even deadly. The FDA is cracking down and has warned the public to avoid stem cell treatments that are not FDA approved or part of a clinical trial. But questionable and illegal stem cell treatments are still being offered in the US and medical tourism to stem cell clinics in other countries is thriving.
Initially, stem cell research was highly controversial because the cells were obtained from human embryos. But now there are other sources. Researchers have succeeded in transforming skin cells into stem cells that could potentially develop into any tissue. But for this to become an effective treatment for anything, we would have to be able to direct the stem cells to develop into the specific tissue we want them to develop into, and we would have to get the new tissue cells to the right place in the body. Even if they do what we want, they might also do something we don’t want, like causing cancer. The concept is promising, but the technological obstacles are immense.
A new approach
Recently, researchers have found a way to avoid the stem cell phase and its attendant concerns. Transcription factors and short snippets of RNA have been used to directly convert skin cells to the desired cell type, to make the skin cell’s genes stop expressing “skin” and start expressing “blood vessels” or whatever is wanted. This concept has been used to transform human fibroblasts into neurons.[i]In the lab. This is very preliminary research. No tested treatments are available for humans.
Now there is a new technology called Tissue Nanotransfection (TNT). The headline reads[ii]“Breakthrough device heals organs with a single touch.”It can allegedly generate any cell type and replace injured or compromised organs. A nanotechnology-based chip is placed on the skin and zapped with an electrical current, thereby reprogramming adult skin cells into another type of cell. It only needs to be done once and it takes less than a second. This astounding news provoked an ejaculation of my own: WOW!!
The tissue nanotransfection study
The study behind the headlines was done at Ohio State University and was published in Nature Nanotechnology.[iii]It did not“heal organs with a single touch.” Far from it. It was a study in mice. They cut the femoral artery to produce ischemic damage in the leg. Then they applied a nano-channeled device to the skin, inserting a positive electrode into the skin and a negative electrode into the device’s cargo solution of DNA and transcription factors. Then they applied a pulsed electric field (10 pulses of 10 milliseconds each). This created tiny pores in the skin cell membranes (nanoporation) and electrophoretically drove the solution directly into the cytoplasm of the cells. Within a week, the skin cells were transformed into blood vessel cells and the new blood vessels connected to the existing circulation so that the ischemic limbs developed an adequate blood supply and healed faster than in untreated control mice. They hypothesize that cells of any organ could be created in the skin and then transferred to that organ to restore its function.
This is fascinating stuff, but I’m skeptical. I don’t know enough about how those transcription factors work, but something about this doesn’t quite ring true to me. It sounds like science fiction. Is the injected DNA somehow incorporated into the cell’s chromosomes? Do the transcription factors affect cells beyond the original recipient cells? If this really works, would it be safe? Changing the expression of genes can affect the expression of other genes and have unintended consequences. Genes are part of a complicated interlocking web, and making changes without fully understanding their impact seems a bit foolhardy.
In the article, the lead researcher is quoted as saying it works about 98% of the time, but there’s no explanation of where that figure came from or what “works” means. He calls it noninvasive; but that’s technically not true, since the electrode pierces the skin and a solution is driven through the skin into the body. He describes being surprised that it worked so well. He says they plan to start clinical trials next year to test this technology in humans.
If this pans out, it will be sensational. Imagine being able to grow replacement cells for any damaged or aging organ by simply applying a device to the skin for less than a second. A miracle cure! An end to aging! Different news articles have suggested TNT may be a solution for essentially every health problem. Just imagine how wonderful it would be if we could fix everything that goes wrong in the human body. What if we could produce new, healthy brain cells for patients with Alzheimer’s or new, healthy pancreas cells for patients with diabetes? Imagine living forever with no illness and no deterioration. There are already conspiracy theories saying Big Pharma will suppress TNT because it threatens their profits. It sounds too good to be true, so it probably is. But we can hope. We can dream. And journalists can ejaculate headlines.
That other TNT, the explosive one, could definitely put a permanent end to people’s health problems. Will this new TNT live up to its promise? Time will tell…
It’s premature to accept the results of this one study before any other lab has tried to replicate it. We should never rely on the results of a single study. There are too many things that can go wrong in research and produce misleading results, and promising early studies are often followed by failures. Many unanswered questions remain. The Health News Review website evaluates the quality of news stories. They gave this story a score of 4 out of 9.[iv]They said it buried key information, there were missing pieces, caveats were needed, and the language was unjustified and sensational.
Why headlines matter
Maria Konnikova, a psychologist and writer who frequently speaks at skeptic conferences, wrote an article for New Yorker titled “How Headlines Change the Way We Think.”[v]We know headlines determine how many people will read an article, but we may not realize that they also determine the way people read an article and the way they will remember it. Headlines frame the experience and set the tone. First impressions matter. The choice of phrasing shifts perception of the text by drawing attention to certain details and affecting what existing knowledge is activated in your mind. Even if the text includes caveats and explanations, it may not be enough to correct the headline’s misdirection.
She describes recent research showing that a misleading headline decreased readers’ recall of details in the article that didn’t support the headline and reduced their ability to make accurate inferences. In a followup study, readers were asked to rate people whose pictures accompanied an article. A story about an art theft might feature a picture of the gallery owner or of the criminal, and the headline made a difference in how readers rated the faces of those individuals for attractiveness, trustworthiness, dominance, and aggression. We are being subtly manipulated. The manipulation is usually not deliberate, but more often a matter of sloppiness or inconsideration.
Journalists are frequently aggravated by negative reactions to their articles that appear to be based only on the headline. They want to scream “Read the article.” But the research shows that reading the article may not be enough. Konnikova concludes, “It’s not always easy to be both interesting and accurate… but it’s better than being exciting and wrong.”
Some bad examples
The Bad Press Awards feature some real doozies. The Daily Mail had an article about a lorry-load of migrants denied entry into the UK. The headline read, “We’re from Europe, Let Us In!” In fact, they were from Iraq and Kuwait and had only travelled through Europe on their way to the UK. A headline in The Sunsaid, “Gunman screaming ‘Allahu Akbar’ opens fire in Spanish supermarket.” Turns out he was a Basque who said something in the Basque language (Euskara) that witnesses didn’t understand.
My favorite medical example was the reporting of a study on glucosamine and chondroitin for knee osteoarthritis. Some headlines said it was effective and others said it wasn’t. The study showed it didn’t work, but one small subgroup seemed to show a benefit and some headline writers chose to emphasize that subgroup.
The bottom line: Headlines can mess with your head. Beware premature ejaculations in the news.
This article was originally published as a SkepDoc column in Skeptic magazine.