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“Fountain of youth” drug won’t be available any time soon

by on 2016/06/08

Last week, the Daily Mail heralded a major breakthrough in reversing the ageing process: “‘Fountain of youth’ pill could be available in just two years: Blend of 30 vitamins and minerals may reverse ageing of the brain”. That is quite the headline. It is explicit in its assertion: we are two years away from having access to a pill that will combat the ageing process. Let’s take a closer look then!

What did the media say?

Immediately below the headline, the Mail piece began with the following bullet point list:

“Formula contains ingredients including vitamins B, C and D and folic acid;

Early tests found it abolished brain cell loss and reversed damage;

Supplement led to fewer free radicals, which cause ageing, being produced;

Hopes it could one day be used to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinsons.”

These summary points would seem to support how advanced the research on this new pill is. However, rather tellingly, the very first line of the actual article states: “A ‘youth’ pill aimed at reversing the damage done by dementia and other age-related diseases could undergo human trials within two years, it has been revealed.” To be clear then, at some point in the next two years, a trial might (only might) begin. In this trial, participants will be given the new supplement. That study would be the first test of how beneficial the pill might be in humans. If it proves to be beneficial, then it might later be more widely available. The “available in just two years” claim is already sounding a bit tight then if the first study might only, possibly, begin within that timeframe.

New treatments for specific conditions are only approved as part of a very long process, as these need to be carefully tested to ensure any side effects are likely to be minimal and balanced by the potential benefits. Although the process of approval varies in different countries, the US Food and Drug Administration have a nice infographic highlighting the different stages involved. As can be seen, human trials generally occur in three phases: a first small trial in generally healthy people is conducted to highlight potential side effects; a slightly larger study is then done to see if the treatment leads to any benefit for those with the disease or condition its been designed to target; and finally, a much larger study is run to ensure side effects and dosage can be worked out. Only after successful completion of all such stages will a drug be approved for clinical use (and only then if the new treatment provides better resutls than the currently available options, taking costs into account too). The NHS Choices website highlights how the process of “finding and developing new medicines takes around 10 to 15 years”. As the “pill” being discussed here is described as a dietary supplement, it may be subject to a different approval process (though the benefits being claimed would still need to be supported by evidence if these are to be used to market the supplement). Given these studies haven’t started, the headline from the Mail is ambitious to say the least.

As an aside, it is also important to note the research in this case was conducted on mice, though this is only mentioned explicitly further into the article by the Mail. At Research the Headlines, we want to support a clearer understanding of research. Sometimes the studies being reported are very far removed from a potential benefit to those reading about them in the media. While this doesn’t diminish the importance of such research, we would urge those reporting such claims to be more responsible in their headlines; in health-related articles where there is currently no evidence available on humans, this should be stated early too.

What did the researchers actually do?

I’m not going to examine the study in detail (published in the journal Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis), but focus instead on the press release from the university of the lead author, Jennifer Lemon. While the press release very clearly states that the study was conducted in mice, it does make some claims that could be interpreted as going beyond what the results show. In saying “The research suggests that there is tremendous potential with this supplement to help people who are suffering from some catastrophic neurological diseases”, it is easy to see where the media have taken their focus for this story. Indeed, much of the Mail piece is based directly on the press release. [Press release reporting of new research isn’t uncommon, and you can begin to explore some of the common pitfalls here.] The research in mice might be promising, but there is a large gap between that and the claim of “tremendous potential with this supplement to help people”.

In creating a press release, researchers have a duty to be clear about what was done and not to talk beyond the actual results. Given the likely media interest in any “fountain of youth” research, it is even more important not to overstate the findings or open the door to exaggerated claims.

The press release ends with “The next step in the research is to test the supplement on humans, likely within the next two years, and target those who are dealing with neurodegenerative diseases”. As above, this is the sensible next stage in the process, but it seems very far from definitive in terms of timescale. Even if the study starts in the next two years, it would be presumptuous to assume it will report a benefit in humans (hence the need to do the study first).

The bottom line

It would seem that the over enthusiastic headlines (not just in the Mail, a quick search reveals plenty of others) have likely arisen from both sides in this instance. A slightly less than carefully worded press release from the research team conducting the study (or at least the press office at their institution) has been grabbed with both hands by reporters looking to generate another attention-grabbing headline. Headlines leading with “Pill trial might start in two years, but we don’t know what they’ll find” are of course less exciting. As this latter title reports perhaps more truthfully the current state of play in this field, researchers might need to decide if all findings need to be splashed across the media. Hopefully our eagle-eye readers will have quickly realised there’s unlikely to be a quick fix to the ageing process any time soon.

Lemon, J. A. et al. (2016). A multi-ingredient dietary supplement abolishes large-scale brain cell loss, improves sensory function, and prevents neuronal atrophy in aging mice. Environmental and Molecular Mutagenesis. DOI: 10.1002/em.22019


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