Sunday, March 2, 2008

Why is diabetes not everyone's cup of tea?

Heh, sorry, the title is the question that would be asked if the following BBC article was on Radio 4's The News Quiz. Something that gets banged on and on about in popular scientific press is the level at which science is pitched in "The News". Here we have the BBC taking a paper that has been published in an academic journal and removing anything of interest, which makes the BBC report imply something which, although not technically wrong, is certainly unfair to the truth.

Tea could help combat diabetes.

Drinking black tea could help prevent diabetes, according to new findings by scientists at Dundee University.

There's your hook - drink more tea, don't get diabetes. Fantastic, tell me more. In fact, don't.

Let's stop there. You see, the full paper published by Neurosciences Institute @ University of Dundee and Scottish Crop Research Institute, Dundee is available online (for free - hoorah!) here in the journal Aging Cell. In actual fact, what the researchers did say was (although this is not my area of expertise - let me know if inaccurate) that a member of a family of transcription factors (proteins that can turn specific genes on and off) called FOXO1a which undergoes phosphorylation (addition of a phosphate group) induced by insulin, can also undergo the same reaction induced by some theaflavins, present in black tea. (And, to slap BBC with using ambiguous imagery and wording, the reason they discuss black tea is not to do with milk destroying the effect, but to compare it to green tea, also studied in the paper.)

Aha - so it is suggested that this one reaction may be able to be encouraged to proceed even if insulin is not present. Most scientists would agree that biochemical pathways are pretty straightforward, as this magnificent page from ExPASy indicates.

(Having a wander round this map of metabolic pathways gives me a sense of incredulous wonder and conjures up many pertinent questions - how can homeopaths even begin to explain miasms or any other of the outdated, anti-knowledge hoo-haa when confronted with something like this? I digress). We are talking here about one reaction in a biochemical pathway.

So indeed, we have one transcription factor which has shown to be sensitive to theaflavins in the same way it is sensitive to insulin. How soon before we can get tea on the NHS? Don't get me wrong, the research seems to be good, well written, solid work, but to say that drinking black tea will prevent diabetes from the research done is nonsense. Indeed, the researchers themselves are quoted as saying:

Our research into tea compounds is at a preclinical, experimental stage and people with diabetes should continue to take their medicines as directed by their doctor.

Bravo. So possibly (if everything goes according to plan) in about 10 years we may have some proof that some of the compounds in tea can help to reduce the instances of Type 2 diabetes. Is this newsworthy? Should the BBC report these stories? In my view, no, or at least they should have a rethink how they write them. If they are going to claim that "Tea can help reduce diabetes" they should at least have some sort of time scale in the report, and an indication of the potentials and limitations. The lack of any science worth noting (I was surprised that the words 'molecular biology' weren't used - or even 'biochemistry') is also disappointing. To me, it seems the BBC doesn't want to 'get all sciencey' because a) it will lose some viewers and b) the chances are the journalist may not be scientifically trained. It is however happy to overinterpret papers and aggrandise possible distant future events as imminent in order to fill sensationalist copy and satisfy its quota for 'Science'.

In case you might be under the impression that this is a one-off, the BBC has form and a long standing relationship with tea:

It "Reduces ovarian cancer risk", "could cut skin cancer risk" and is a "healthier drink than water", although this research was funded by The Tea Council, so further probing might be needed. Also interesting is the BBC puts as much effort into its picture choice as it does science writing.

I fancy a cuppa.

EDIT: The original press release is here and, apart from mentioning "test-tube studies" is many times better written than the BBC article it spawned.

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