Thursday, April 24, 2008

Red Herrings and Sexy Science

Anyone feeling a bit overwhelmed by the frequency of news stories reporting new targets for personalized and predictive medicine, will grab some moral support from a recent article in The Washington Post. In "Science Is Leading Us to More Answers, but It's Also Misleading Us" (22 April 2008; HE08) David A. Shaywitz examines the ups and downs of the new biology. In contemporary genetic medical research the paradigm has shifted from investigating "a few favorite genes" to surveying "thousands of initial candidates" and browsing for "important players and pivotal networks". In Shaywitz's view, this has resulted in a lot of noise – sexy science headlines pointing to journals "littered with studies reporting 'disease genes' or 'molecular signatures' that are likely red herrings". This is exasperated by the fact that journals "have little appetite for negative results" and "erroneous results are almost never retracted". To address the hype in genetics, Shaywitz recommends better, more rigorous statistical analysis on the research front and increased caution and scrutiny by information providers and consumers.

One can hardly disagree with a call for better research methods, smarter journalism, and better reading habits, but where does that leave services like PredictER Blog and PredictER News Brief? Here at PredictER we are committed to investigating and addressing the attitudes and concerns of our communities – including: researchers, physicians, legislators and patients. Undoubtedly, some members of these communities will form opinions and pursue projects that leave them fishing for the sexy red herrings of genetic science. Others will develop policies and regulations based on the latest, suspect catch. Knowing this, I'm trying to keep up with the hype. I try to monitor the information, both to identify quality sources, but also to help our investigators assess the impact of the hype. Although the news headlines may not reflect the best science, they do have the potential to influence the public's willingness to participate in and support new medical research. Therefore, we're doing our best to engage the community, even if this means beginning the discussion with the latest hot topics and sexy headlines.

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