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Flattery to deceive

Posted by Callum Anderson on 14 April, 2010

Is orange juice a new superfood? Perhaps in some situations it can benefit the body. But the term ‘superfood’ often belies negligible effects in vivo.

A paper by Husam Ghanim, Chang Ling Sia, Mannish Upadhyay, Kelly Korzeniewski, Prabhakar Viswanathan, Sanaa Abuaysheh, Priya Mohanty and Paresh Dandona at the State University of New York at Buffalo (evaluated by our wonderful Faculty of course), suggests that consuming orange juice alongside a fatty, high-carbohydrate meal could limit the adverse effects of all that junk food.

On a slightly related note – while writing this post I was directed by RPG towards a list of The 40 Deadliest Fast Food Meals – and I wonder how much orange juice we might have to drink to alleviate the effects of the top entry? The article clogging, 1300 calorie, 38 grammes-of-saturated-fat-Baconator Triple from Wendy’s!

Right – back to more serious pontification now.

The paper hinges around a comparison of orange juice, water and glucose drink alongside a fatty, high carbohydrate meal and the subsequent production of reactive oxygen species by polymorphonuclear cells, measures of cytokine and endotoxin activation in mononuclear cells, and plasma levels of endotoxin and matrix metalloproteinase.

Bruce Bistrian of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center says in his evaluation

Orange juice reduced the oxidative stress and prevented the formation of pro-inflammatory components, including the increase in plasma endotoxin, compared to either water or glucose. Somewhat surprisingly, there was no increase in plasma glucose with orange juice as found with the meal plus water or the meal plus glucose, despite the substantial carbohydrate and caloric load.

And he added

it is likely that the authors’ suggestion that the mechanism for the antiinflammatory actions was due to the flavonoids naringenin and hesperidin present in orange juice is correct.

So the flavonoids in orange juice may be preventing inflammation after an unhealthy meal, in short limiting the damage.

However, I would not go as far as to suggest that orange juice is particularly brilliant in this respect, especially as the highest concentrations of hesperidin are found in the white parts and peel of oranges, which do not provide a particularly appetising juice. Furthermore, this article suggests that grapefruit provides a significantly higher concentration of naringenin than orange.

But criticism aside; the mention of flavonoids in this paper got me thinking more generally about these so called superfoods. And then more specifically about a press release I saw doing the rounds recently concerning rhubarb. Scientists are inherently aware that test tube or laboratory work does not always transfer into the real world. And the rhubarb press release is a good example of why.

Rhubarb was christened as a new superfruit by some sections of the media due to its high concentration of polyphenols. And the point of these chemicals is that in test tube study, they scavenge free radicals and show other benefits when used in high concentration. But they also have currently undefined mechanisms by which they may reduce the risk of cancer or heart disease. I would be very surprised however if these benefits effectively make the transfer from vitro to vivo. Basically, the concentration levels of ingested polyphenols are usually extremely low, and may be too low in many cases to make any real difference.

A recently published paper by Balz Frei entitled Controversy: What are the True Biological Functions of Superfruit Antioxidants? highlights further problems when flavonoids in particlular find their way into the body. He says

Flavonoids are poorly absorbed into blood and rapidly eliminated from the body; thus, flavonoids have low eventual biological availability.

So really, despite having high levels of helpful chemicals; once ingested, concentration of many of these so called ‘super’ chemicals still lags way behind more common cellular antioxidants.

So eating rhubarb is not going to affect chemical levels for particularly long, because the unique chemicals simply don’t hang around for very long in the body. And this is why I really like the paper by Ghanim et al. Ghanim and his team acknowledge the short bioavaliability of flavonoids and test them in a situation where their effect is clearly measurable against the high calorie meal.

Perhaps I am being too harsh here? In the rhubarb press release, Dr Nikki Jordan-Mahy does admit that the real application of her research lies away from ‘Superfoods’. She says

But if we can extract the polyphenols they may be useful in helping to fight cancer along with chemotherapy.

And this point hits the nail on the head, we need to be thinking how to extract and concentrate these chemicals to make them worthwhile, and in the meantime, the mainstream media needs to understand that positive laboratory tests do not always signify benefits in vivo.


Posted in f1000, Journalism, Medicine, Press Releases | Tagged: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Flattery to deceive

Publish or perish – a question of ethics

Posted by Callum Anderson on 15 March, 2010

I got a very strong sense of deja vu when leafing through PLoS Biol recently. I was sure I had seen something very similar to Jeffrey Shaman’s paper Absolute Humidity and the Seasonal Onset of Influenza in the Continental United States before.

A quick check on PubMed proved me right. I found the following, published two months earlier, in PLoS Curr Influenz:

Absolute Humidity and the Seasonal Onset of Influenza in the Continental US
Jeffrey Shaman,* Virginia Pitzer,† Cecile Viboud,‡ Marc Lipsitch,§ and Bryan Grenfell

PubMed ID 20066155

Because this was PLoS, I was also able to print the full paper and compare. I couldn’t find any differences whatsoever between the two papers. In fact they were exactly the same except for a reshuffling of author order and an abbreviation in the title.

A quick check back on PLoS Biol and I notice that someone else has seen the discrepancy. A comment attached to the article begins with the following

Compare, published in PLoS Currents influenza (dec 18th)
Absolute Humidity and the Seasonal Onset of Influenza in the Continental US
Jeffrey Shaman,* Virginia Pitzer,† Cecile Viboud,‡ Marc Lipsitch,§ and Bryan Grenfell

PubMed ID 20066155

with (and not cited, if I am not mistaken)

Absolute Humidity and the Seasonal Onset of Influenza in the Continental United States (23 february 2010)

Jeffrey Shaman1*, Virginia E. Pitzer2,3,4, Cécile Viboud2, Bryan T. Grenfell2,4,5, Marc Lipsitch6,7,8

When this poster commented, only one of the articles was listed in PubMed. A search for “Absolute humidity” on PubMed today however yielded the following results [click it to get full size]

A PLoS spokesperson had answered the comment in less than 3 hours (perhaps they anticipated something being said). Their official line was as follows

PLoS Biology is fully aware of the authors’ submission to PLoS Currents referenced above. PLoS Currents is a website for immediate, open communication and discussion of new scientific data, analyses, and ideas in a critical research area. The work is screened by experts, but is not subject to in-depth peer review…

Our policy until now (February, 2010) has been to allow resubmission of PLoS Currents content to another PLoS journal. However, the decision to include Currents in PubMed (and PubMed Central) has caused us to reconsider the status of content communicated via Currents, relative to other journals.

I am certainly not convinced by this argument. Having personal experience of getting journals into PubMed, it is not something that happens immediately; the typical process is eight to twelve weeks and PLoS Curr Influenz was already accepted by PubMed in 2009. The accepted date on the re-submitted paper in PLoS Biol was January 20, 2010.

And even worse still, the received date of the paper by PLoS Biol was September 10, 2009. PLoS Curr Influenz did not even accept the duplicate paper until December 18, 2009.

The dates simply don’t add up, a journal doesn’t just email PubMed and expect to show content the next day, and feigning innocence just makes PLoS look at worst deceitful and at very best incompetent. If PLoS was aware that the paper had been submitted to both journals, and was aware that PLoS Curr Influenz would be listed on PubMed, they should have made a full disclosure on the paper subsequently published in PLoS Biol.

Now, I am very much in favour of rapid communication journals, I think they represent an excellent platform to publish cutting edge research, but a distinction between these and traditionally peer-reviewed journals must be drawn somewhere. Should a publication like this really be submitting content to PubMed when their editorial policy allows re-submission in other PLoS journals? PLoS have been having their cake and eating it for a long time now. In a world where publication stats are frequently used as a method of judging the worth of a researcher, are the authors here benefiting twice from the same paper? And PubMed has a very clear policy on duplicate articles, which PLoS should know about.

So why didn’t they do it? Why didn’t they tell PubMed that they would be knowingly supplying duplicate articles? Well I do have a theory [snip-snip – F1000 Lawyers]… But it would be much better to see what you think.

Posted in Journalism, Literature | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments »

Hair apparent

Posted by stevepog on 8 March, 2010

beware of the bearded man bearing breadfruit

Sometimes there’s a real life-changing thrust to blog posts, that drives at the heart of a pivotal issue in modern society and make people question their motives, passions, opinions or even educational goals.

But seeing as we’re all coming down off a post-Oscars high, let me preempt your own judgement by rating this one as an Inglourious Basterds compared to the Hurt Locker of more worthy blog scribblings.

Actually, it’s really more of a Valkyrie than QT’s latest effort but then Tom Cruise never won any awards for his ability at copying accents (and it obviously wasn’t nominated for the 2010 awards so it’s less zeitgeisty).

Anyway, my point is to direct your eyes to the picture of the man on the left, much-respected Stanford neuroscientist and f1000 Faculty Member Robert Sapolsky.

With a beard that would make Hagrid feel ashamed, Sapolsky must be a delight as a lecturer. He’d also make a great magician with no need for a top hat either.

Sapolsky is a seasoned reviewer for f1000 and contributed a very positive review of a recent paper in Nature which discussed Prejudice and truth about the effect of testosterone on human bargaining behaviour. The crux of the paper was in a press release we put out today but the first emailed responses from journalists focused not on the weighty issues being discussed but of course, the accompanying photo above.

In one reporter’s words, it encouraged her to ask for more information on him as “I’ve been meaning to do somethign (sic) on weirdy beardies for a while”.

This is not the first time we’ve discussed hirsute scientists and our friend Joanne Manaster has a similar penchant (purely scientific) for bearded biologists. But it reinforces once again how much we should respect a scientist who sports this look: if he shows half as much commitment to research as to beard growth, a cancer/malaria/Xbox-related RSI cure is surely not far away.

*it’s ok, I cringed while writing the headline as much as you probably did reading it. To me it felt like the title for a bad 90s C-grade comedy starring a faded stand-up comic.

Then I did an IMDB search (I’m writing this in real-time, so the punchline could be a fizzer) and whaddya know?

It was closest in wording to a bad Canadian comedy flick , a 1912 black and white romantic drama and best of all, the ridiculously titled, Michael Flatley: Eire Apparent, about the most arrogant Irishman to ever pull on a pair of tights. Riverdance fans, I’ll meet you in the car park if you want to take issue with that assessment.

Posted in Communication, f1000, FMs, Journalism, Press Releases, Random, Science | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »

Worthless lie

Posted by rpg on 9 February, 2010

I’m on record as defending PR in the scientific sphere (and featured in Nature’s From the Blogosphere, so it must have touched a nerve somewhere). I maintain that we will continue to require good public relations, perhaps even more so with the looming spectre of swingeing cuts in publicly-funded science. (I’m a little less enamoured of paying PR managers at a research council double the average professorial salary, but that’s a story for another day.)

Although f1000 (obviously) isn’t associated with any particular institution or scientist, we do like to put out the occasional release covering interesting science that’s been picked up by the Faculty. This is an interesting exercise as a lot of newsworthy stories have usually already been released by the journal of the original article, or the author’s home press office, by the time our evaluations come in. But we do find a lot of important (or, let’s be honest, slightly quirky) work that hasn’t got much further than a couple of interested specialists, and we like to bring it to a wider audience. (Sometimes this attracts criticism from talentless hacks, but hey, it’s all good). Besides, if six month-old ‘news’ is good enough for the Beeb, it’s good enough for us.

Anyway, we’ve been reasonably successful in our forays into PR, getting quite a bit of attention from all sorts of places, including the national press. Some of our more popular topics have included cartilage repair, cocaine addiction and seasonal effects on multiple sclerosis (rather than deluge you with links, all our releases are archived at EurekAlert.) SP has made a glossy brochure of media coverage, which you can have a look at if ever you care to visit me in the shadow of the BT Tower.

Interestingly, the Royal Society of Chemistry has also been experimenting with PR. Brian Emsley recounts how ‘light’ news stories—such as the importance of adding soy sauce to your gravy— raise the profile of an organization (in this case the RSC), and basically prepare the ground for the ‘serious’ stuff. Like ground bait, or artillery barrages to soften the enemy before sending in the infantry. We’re trying to do a similar thing to the RSC; raising our own profile and that of science more generally. It’s all part of the science communication bug I have, and a way of getting people in general more ‘comfortable’ with the scientific process in general (as well as getting our content out to professionals—practice nurses perhaps—who might not have seen it).

So, we’re still experimenting, and we’ll probably get some things wrong, and hopefully we’ll get other things right, but I’d really like to know what you think about PR and the direction we should be taking it.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Communication, Journalism, Press Releases, Science | Tagged: , , , | Comments Off on Worthless lie

How do you summarise Science Online 2010 in 140 characters?

Posted by stevepog on 19 January, 2010

Inquisitive, hungry, intense, can get nasty? Science nerd or squirrel?

Science Online 2010 wrapped up on Sunday and, despite its brilliant format, great networking opportunities and overall general coolness of fun and quirky participants, I was left with a dilemma.

If anyone can possibly tell me how to wrap up a conference about science, the web, technology and journalism to fit into a Twitter post, I will either fund your child’s college education (or at least buy them a cell biology textbook) or do the Locomotion at the next Sci Online 2011 (as an Australian, sorry about Kylie Minogue).

Because for anyone new to Twitter or just not good at headline-style conversation, even isolating topics into a catchy tweet was difficult. If you don’t believe me, check out the archive here and see what really catches your eye.

My point being that, for those who have mastered the art of the tweet, it really does equate to microjournalism and full-length blogging should as such be given the same cred as ‘dead-tree’ media (thanks to an unknown conference delegate for pulling out that term. Should we call web writers ‘ozone-depleting’ or ‘powergrid-draining’ media?).

It will take a while to get my summary of the conference to a respectable length, so for now I’ll refer to others who have already slept off their jetlag, showed their respect to the great dreamer on Martin Luther King Day and got their thoughts into an ordered state not overly addled by caffeine or sweet tea (an abominable North Carolina drink, sorry for saying so).

Co-organiser Bora gathered a full list together at http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2010/01/blogmedia_coverage_of_scienceo.php, which includes some of my favourites so far:






In another recent news, here’s a link to a new f1000 Report discussing osteoarthritis treatments:

f1000 Report by Yves Henrotin

Posted in Communication, Conferences, f1000, Journalism, Literature, Science | Tagged: , , | 6 Comments »

Citizen Science campaign ramps up

Posted by stevepog on 22 December, 2009

I’ve mentioned before about the superb efforts of our friend Darlene Cavalier in encouraging non-scientists (and some influential members of US Congress) to actively engage in science, which we gladly endorse.

Darlene is working hard on the ScienceforCitizens website, which will be launched next month, but she also found time to be interviewed recently by Florida radio show Weekend Workout on science policy, cheerleading and other topics.

Take a listen here (her interview starts at 20:50 on the Soundcloud player below or about a third of the way through if you use the basic web player at this link):

Weekend Workout podcast featuring Darlene Cavalier

Darlene, myself and other web 2.0-savvy bloggers, science press, educators and developers will be attending Science Online next month in North Carolina, where we will (as the conference notes promise) “discuss, demonstrate and debate online strategies and tools for doing science, publishing science, teaching science, and promoting the public understanding of science.” Sounds like a hoot doesn’t it.

I’ll report on those happenings in mid January, for now it’s off to cold and snowy Belgium and Germany for the Christmas/New Year break. Keep an eye on our Twitter account for regular updates on f1000 and enjoy the festive season.

Posted in Communication, Conferences, Journalism, Science | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on Citizen Science campaign ramps up

No definite link between cannabis use and suicide: our review

Posted by stevepog on 7 December, 2009

We’ve published an interesting review (aren’t they all though?) on a study that discussed the lack of association between marijuana and suicide risk, in what our reviewer Wayne Hall from the University of Queensland, Australia, described as “the largest and best controlled prospective study of the relationship to date“.

It’s a tough topic to tackle, especially in a time when celebrity deaths, marijuana usage and suicide are so closely linked by tabloid media (Marilyn Monroe being the newest revelation) and when fears that teenage brains getting destroyed by cannabis are high on the news agenda. But on the other hand, when a highly-respected scientist such as Professor David Nutt gets vilified by the government for his outspoken views on drugs policy, the media generally showed support for the sacked Professor while still being skeptical of his evidence-based comments (such as cannabis use being safer than horse riding).

Hall looked at the paper, Cannabis and suicide: longitudinal study, by Allebeck and Price at al. from Cardiff University UK, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, which went beyond previous small cross-sectional studies to look at whether the cannabis/suicide attempt relationship took into account pre-existing suicide risk between young people who become regular cannabis users and their peers who do not.

In the study, more than 50,000 Swedish men aged 18-20 were followed up for 33 years using death registers to identify those who had died from suicide.

Hall says:

As in previous studies, self-reported cannabis use at conscription was positively related to suicide (odds ratio [OR]=1.62, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.65-2.07) but this association was no longer significant when plausible potential confounders, such as problematic behavior during childhood, intelligence, alcohol abuse, parental psychiatric disorder, other drug use, and psychiatric diagnosis at conscription were statistically controlled for by logistic regression (OR=0.88, 95% CI 0.65-1.20).
The selection of confounders to control for did not affect the finding that the OR was no longer significant after adjustment for confounders. This study strongly suggests that the modest association observed between regular cannabis use and suicide in cross sectional studies reflects the fact that young people who are at marginally higher risk of suicide are more likely to become regular cannabis users than their peers.

And it’s the last point that is most pressing: those at a slightly higher suicide risk are more likely to become regular pot smokers, not the other way round. If you look at the citation rates on Google Scholar for “cannabis and suicide”, many academics seem to support the view that the two are  strongly linked.

Allebeck and Price’s earlier paper, published in 1990 at this study’s 15-year mark, even stated “the proportion of suicides increased sharply with the level of cannabis consumption“: their new study clarified that the “association was eliminated after adjustment for confounding” and the link was better explained by markers of psychological and behavioural problems.

No doubt long-term studies such as this will lend more weight to the Nutt debate and, if they are given adequate publicity, hopefully help to cut down on biased anti-drug journalism.

Posted in f1000, Journalism, Statistics | Tagged: , , , , | Comments Off on No definite link between cannabis use and suicide: our review

Doing science to it

Posted by stevepog on 16 November, 2009

I often run updates on the news stories we put out from f1000 that are picked up in the media. Most of the time it’s good coverage, occasionally (as the mainstream news media is wont to do) they misinterpret the research and then some poor reporting is cut-and-pasted on blogs around the world.

In the UK, the Daily Mail and Daily Express are routinely derided for their page 1 mix of medical scare stories and unfounded cancer wonder drug revelations. US readers will have their own examples of media outlets that think ‘doing science’* to a story (eg. quoting stats from a straw poll by a first-year researcher from a low-grade institution) makes it factually correct.

The subject of the discussion today was this release on an F1000 Medicine review of research into how first-time mothers who have long-term exposure to a father’s semen have a lower risk of preeclampsia and generally healthier babies. The title was catchy, the science was sound and the story related to sex so it was bound to gain traction and it did, from the UK Telegraph, Daily Mail, Sky News Australia and a raft of medical and science blogs.

A blogger on Blisstree says using the word ‘faithful’ in the headline was incorrect and if you look into the detail of the study, the main focus is on the duration of sexual relationship between the mother and biological father, while the number of sexual partners is a sidenote. So we take it on the chin that the word ‘faithful’ was misplaced but the Blisstree blogger was wrong to say that many news stories (and us, by association) got the facts wrong.

It pays to be careful when making big statements: sometimes the difficulty is crunching the original title (in this case, Duration of sexual relationship and its effect on preeclampsia and small for gestational age perinatal outcome) into one that is factually correct and easy to understand. But not so simple that the original message gets lost and people start believing that tea cures cancer or other such nonsense.

*When it comes to ‘doing science’ to anything, this is the only time it’s applicable (thanks to Dresden Codak):

Doing science to it

Image courtesy of: http://topatoco.com/

Posted in Communication, f1000, Journalism | Tagged: | Comments Off on Doing science to it

One step forward, two steps back

Posted by stevepog on 4 November, 2009

I’m reposting an article sent to me by the Americans for Medical Progress (AMP), who essentially fight for equal rights for scientists in the animal research debate (previously mentioned on our blog) which is often dominated by PETA  and headline-grabbing extremist groups. AMP, like their UK cousins Understanding Animal Research and Pro-Test, face difficulties even when a newspaper appears to support their cause, as this example showed:

The Minneapolis Star Tribune has just posted to its website a feature on animal research that ran in the paper’s lifestyle section last Sunday.  The piece notes an erosion of public opinion in support of research, and cites some of the several efforts by the research community to reverse the trend, including the Research Saves campaign.

“One of the problems we have nationally is that people don’t see the connection between science and biomedical research and progress,” said Mayo Clinic research dean Dr. Michael Joyner. “Things like heart valves and statins wouldn’t be here without animal research.”

In the article, AMP Director Dick Bianco, an associate professor of surgery at the University of Minnesota, discusses his own outreach:  “I realized PETA was effective in the high schools, so I bring high school students to my lab. I’ve had almost 10,000 high school students through to see what a medical laboratory really is. I let them see the animals. These aren’t dungeon chambers.”

The article is printed below and may be found at http://bit.ly/2zvo4O.

You’ll see that the piece is flawed in many ways, such as leaving the impression that PETA decries violence by animal extremists (unlike HSUS, PETA’s leaders have refused to condemn such), and that only animal rights groups care about alternatives.  Nevertheless, it does bring the issue to public attention.  The Star-Tribune seeks  readers’ comments, and it is a fair assumption that animal rights advocates will be vocal.  Please consider leaving your own comment in support of research.

Posted in Communication, Journalism | Tagged: , | Comments Off on One step forward, two steps back

Strange news from a distant star

Posted by rpg on 18 September, 2009

Clive Cookson over at the Financial Times reports on Wednesday night’s têteà-tête between Lord Drayson, the UK’s Science Minister, and writer/broadcaster/medical doctor Ben Goldacre. Goldacre is behind badscience.net and is somewhat outspoken in his opinions. I didn’t sign up to see the debate, seeing as I’d been invited to a movie: which I’m convinced was more fun and better for the soul (I also said I’d review it for LabLit.com). I have to be in the right mood for Goldacre, and that happens rarely.

The subject of the debate was science journalism, which is often said to be in a parlous state, especially by people like Goldacre and his acolytes. Intriguing, then, to read that ‘Drayson had the better of the argument’.

Drayson maintained that the quality of science journalism has improved over the past few years – comparing the reporting of BSE, the MMR vaccine scare and GM crops with the better recent coverage of the Large Hardon Collider, hybrid embryos and swine flu.

Clive says that Drayson also advocated sensationalism in science reporting, which no doubt annoyed the ‘elitist’ (in a surprising reversal of characters) Goldacre. The latter’s comment, ‘Science journalists are very marginal figures in the coverage of science in British newspapers’ would no doubt have pissed off not a few editors and journalists.

I don’t know. Science reporting, in the tabloids at least, is generally wrong (in my experience). But then, much of the other news is also wrong: I have read stories where, from insider knowledge, at least half of the ‘facts’ aren’t. On the other hand, the Telegraph covered a story about money and well-being rather well (we know: we released the story).

And therein lies a tale. The Register got all huffy and sarcastic yesterday because the research was published four months ago, saying things like ‘offering this as an example of its own brilliance in keeping its subscribers bang up to date.’

Which sort of illustrates my more general point about journalism. We (f1000) don’t necessarily claim to be the first with news (although we can be surprisingly quick): rather, we concentrate on the science that is influential, important, and that might otherwise be missed. That’ll be why our Hidden Jewels sections are so popular (and yeah. People pay for this). But perhaps you wouldn’t expect the hacks at the Register to grasp something so subtle.

So there was a vote on Twitter on who ‘won’ the debate. Naturally, all Goldacre’s acolytes voted for him, but I was pleasantly surprised by the number of votes for Drayson. It looks like he did win, after all. That’s not to say science journalism can’t improve, but maybe things aren’t quite as bad as we thought?

And seriously, Clive, your photo scares me.

Update: Could this be the cause of all Ben Goldacre’s woes?

Posted in f1000, Journalism | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »