Wednesday, January 30, 2008

You're damned if you do.......

...and you're damned if you don't. Friday, there was a story in BBC News about some researchers from the University of Sunderland who have developed a helmet for treatment of Alzheimer's disease. You can also read about the story here, from blogs at the university in question. The big deal about this helmet is that is uses infrared radiation (by way of lasers, a point I hope you'll keep in mind until later), which according to the researchers might not only be able to stop the rate of decay, but also stimulate growth of brain cells - the operative term being "might" as it has only been tested on mice so far. Still, the results were promising enough to warrant tests on human subjects starting as early as this summer.

Saturday, the story broke in Norwegian media like VG. And that, I guess, is when the shit hit the fan. Yesterday, a Norwegian Professor in physiotherapy - Jan M. Bjordal from the University of Bergen got his $.02 worth in VG by criticizing not only the research, but also the researchers. The criticism the proclaimed "laser expert" Bjordal (who by the way has an h-index of 5 according to Web Of Science, which for a full professor is less than stellar) launches can be summarized as follows:
  1. This is not a controlled study, and coming out with these news before passing through the normal path of publication in a peer-reviewed journal is way premature.
  2. The public should not have any expectations, as more studies are needed, both with respect to efficacy and with respect to exactly how this supposed therapy works.
  3. There are several gaps in the knowledge that needs to be filled
  4. "According to our knowledge of the effect of infrared light and laser light, it is obvious that this treatment will not cure Alzheimer's"
  5. "I can't say that I know these researchers, but they're not among the most productive authors within this field"
  6. They have a commercial interest in the product, and stand to make money off of it should it be successful.

Now; without commenting on whether or not I think this therapy might work, or how it potentially works, one thing that should be frighteningly obvious from Professor Bjordal's statement is that he's full of it. Regardless of whether he's right or not, this is a brutal case of "Hey; look at me! I wanna say something in the media too - please; look at ME! Won't you please acknowledge my existence?" If I'd been on the receiving end of this criticism, my rebuttal would go a li'l something like this:

  • RE 1: They're not saying it's a finished product. They're saying that it is promising enough to warrant trials with human subjects, which quite frankly puts it head and shoulders above the median pharmaceutical product or therapy. The drop-off from lab tests to clinical trials are brutal. And regarding breaking the news before publishing it; that's actually something we're increasingly encouraged to do. Right, Kjerstin?
  • RE 2: Again, according to the researchers this is a promising study which will be going into tests with human subjects this summer. They're not exactly making any promises here. And regarding the comment about us not knowing the exact molecular mechanism here; are you really saying that we at present know the exact molecular mechanisms and pathways for all therapies and drugs currently being used? 'Cause if we do, that's news to me, and I'm sure that you could pick up a few Nobel prizes if you shared your information with the world.
  • RE 3: Of course there are several knowledge gaps that must be filled. That's why they move on to further studies, which by the way is no guarantee for this product ever being launched. They're saying that the product works well enough to have passed the initial stages, not that they're shipping the prototypes off to the production line tomorrow.
  • RE 4: So according to your vast knowledge this ain't gonna work is it, Mr. h-index = 5. Making a dumb statement like this actually moves the burden of evidence over to you, since you apparently possess knowledge which is crucial here, and can save lots of time and money. If only you'd be willing to share your immense knowledge with the scientific community and the world, you'd rake in a few Nobel prizes for your efforts, but apparently, you don't care that much about publishing. Or rather; it's not that you don't necessarily have any peer-reviewed publications (27 according to WOS), but rather that nobody bothers to cite your work. Which could mean that your work is too advanced for mere mortals to understand, and until Reptilians from Planet Niburu share their advanced technology with us, we can but marvel at the scientific genious that is you. Or it means that your work is not good enough or original enough to warrant citations.
  • RE 5: See rebuttal 4. Berating the scientific merits of your colleagues as being less than stellar would count for a hell of a lot more if you'd been spearheading your chosen field of study yourself. Epic case of pot meeting kettle, right Mr. h = 5? But I guess that as soon as you're done counting to infinity for the third time you'll get right on publishing those citation-worthy articles and win them Nobels, right?
  • RE 6: Oh no; they might stand to make profit off of a cure for Alzheimer's should they be successful. *Gasp* and they're connected to a company outside the realm of academia. Oh the horror. Where does this end; soon people will be wanting to be rewarded for patents, and it all goes to hell in a handbasket. And the worst part is that if that they make the product, there is no set of checks and balances to stop this from being implemented in hospitals as standard treatment for Alzheimer's despite it having no effect, because due to an inexplicable flaw in our system, there is no government body hindering the use of drugs and therapies......... But of course; if you'd found the cure for Aids and mastered cold fusion, you'd give away the rights to a nameless company for free. Unfortunately, you're too busy, what with your counting to infinity and beating up Mirko Cro Cop and making fun of Oppenheimer's work.

The kicker is that Bjordal went to the media to criticize the fact that some other researchers went to the media with their story. That's brutal logic right there. So what were the researchers supposed to do? It seems to me they'd be doomed either way, because a large portion of the scientific community is going to crap all over them for not venting their results through the process of peer review before making it public, whereas the proponents of popularization of science are thrilled to have new scientific results of general interest at this stage in the process (Right, Kjerstin?).

I truly hope that the latter fraction is jumping up and down in the defense of these scientists right now, because the researchers in question followed their advice (and also increasingly the guidelines from government funding agencies and universities) regarding communication of results.

And that's not counting the criticism these people get from self-proclaimed experts with dubious credentials, like the "watchdogs" in various scepticist organizations. Check out this nugget of a comment I found via from an engineer who already at this stage talks about reverse-engineering the product (reverse-engineering is something you do if you a) are looking at potential viral technology, b) find an extra-terrestrial aircraft from the Planet Niburu and wish to unlock the technological secrets of the Reptilians, or c) never had an original thought in your life): "As an electronics engineer with some medical training, I can quickly read the press release and look at and reverse-engineer the Alzheimer helmet and determine that in all likelihood, it’s several groups of high-power LED arrays with fans to cool them. If I can do this, many others can too." Two things to keep in mind here: 1) Are lasers the same as LED arrays? 2) What would be the relevance of the answer to 1) if the molecular mechanism turns out to be targeting of specific transition dipoles?

I'm not going to write anything about my own opinion regarding this methodology (although some of what I do is indeed related to Alzheimer's), as it's irrelevant in this context. I will say, however, that if it were me, I'd go the slower route through peer-review in order to have extra quality-assurance barrier between myself and various ramifications. But then again, there are plenty of people who would criticize me for that, right, Kjerstin?


Anders said...

I haven't had time to read up on the actual study/ results, but I have some thoughts about this anyway.

First of all, kudos to VG for once present scientific news in a pretty objective way (no semi-funny/ sensational "Now you can forget about Alzheimer" headings). So then why does Jan M. Bjordal (that's Dr. h-index = 5 to you, Wilhelm) feel the need to go out and dampen the expectations? Why? I didn't read the article in VG as an attempt to raise expectations at all. It was a lot of "more trials needed" in there.

Personally I think the whole article was a good (not perfect) example of how to present science in the media. No need for prof. Bjordal to make a statement to the media just to drag his collegues down.

Wilhelm said...

I was actually very pleasantly surprised by how VG reported this story - like you say, it's got the prerequisite "might" and "further trials are needed" phrases in there so that you'd have to be an absolute jackass to interpret what was written to be indicative of a finished product/concept. And I'm quite the sceptic when it comes to how mass media communicates science.

And regarding Bjordal - I refuse to acknowledge that he's got the same academic degree I've got. He's a physiotherapist, which is all good and fine, but not to be confused with something scientists do.