Fertility research hits the headlines again…

Today it’s a story about the ovaries of women who’ve been through an early menopause being “reawakened” by researchers in Japan and the US using a new technique.  The first baby has been born using the technique which involves taking out the ovaries, cutting them up and treating them before returning them to the top of the fallopian tubes. Apparently this has led to follicles starting to develop in 8 of the 27 women in the study, and one has now had a baby.

It sounds exciting, and the idea that there could be a way to help women whose ovaries have stopped producing eggs prematurely is fantastic – but unfortunately this is another example of a headline that will have raised the hopes of many women and yet is  highly unlikely to make any difference to their current situation. The problem with the reporting of new developments in research is that it is hard to keep them in perspective. Remember, this is a research study and it’s not something the staff at your local fertility clinic are going to be able to offer you next week – or even next year. It’s still very much at the experimental stage and only one of the 27 women in the study has actually had a baby using this technique although another is expected. We have no idea why it worked for these two women and not for the others, and far more research is needed before it would be able to be offered to on a wider scale.

Of course, we want to know about new advances, but if you monitor the headlines you’ll find news of a “breakthrough” or an “exciting new development” every few weeks – and many seem to disappear without trace afterwards. I was glad to see that the BBC had put the story into perspective by interviewing Professor Nick Macklon and Professor Charles Kingsland but it’s difficult not to get excited when research teams produce a treatment that could change your life if it worked –  try to remember that it can be a very long journey from research to reality. You can read more about the study here 




Hype, hope and headlines

Last night I went to a fascinating discussion organised by Progress Educational Trust and the Science Journalism Department at City University looking at the way that new developments in fertility treatment are reported in the press. The debate was initially sparked by a letter to The Times written by fertility specialists Professor Nick Macklon and Professor Siladitya Bhattacharya about the reporting of fertility-related stories in the media and the impact these can have on patients. The regular bombardment of stories of advances in fertility treatment that are allegedly going to improve success rates and transform the future can make it difficult for patients to separate hype from reality.

The discussion started with a ten-minute presentation by each of the three speakers for the evening, beginning with Simon Fishel who is managing director of CARE and who had come in for some criticism for hailing an unproven new approach as a “the most exciting breakthrough we’ve had in probably thirty years”.  Fishel made the point that any new advance would always be unproven at first and suggested that a baby was “all the proof that is needed”. He explained that waiting to have the gold standard of evidence would simply take too long for most fertility patients who needed help right away, not many years down the line.

Fishel was followed by Professor Nick Macklon from Southampton who painted a picture of the couple who had just been through unsuccessful treatment and who were facing a crisis, but were then presented with hope by a newspaper article claiming that a new breakthrough treatment could offer success when in reality this was completely unproven. He said that patients were paying the price and that journalism needed to be more discerning.

The final speaker was Dr Hannah Devlin, Science Editor at The Times, who began by explaining why human interest fertility stories had all the ingredients to “set the heart of the news editor racing”. She discussed why it was important to report on developments as they emerged, which might be well before there was the gold standard level of evidence, but admitted that ‘breakthrough’ was a word she tried to avoid. She said that the time pressures of a daily paper could make it difficult for journalists, and that sometimes the mere fact that everyone else was covering a story made it news in itself.

During the question and answer session that followed, much of the discussion focused on the idea of responsibility – the responsibility of the scientist, of the press officer, of the journalist and of the clinician. A question from Stuart Lavery of IVF Hammersmith made the point that with so much of IVF carried out in the private sector, there was often a marketing element to stories of new fertility advances.

From the patient perspective, the evening raised many issues. Yes, of course we want to be informed about any new advances, but we need news stories about these to be balanced and fair. We need them to cut through the hype and to present us with a realistic idea of how helpful this would be to us as patients today. In an industry where everyone seems happy to keep taking our money as long as there is any sliver of a chance of success, honesty has never been more important.