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Open Access Research article

Ocular gene transfer in the spotlight: implications of newspaper content for clinical communications

Shelly Benjaminy and Tania Bubela*

Author Affiliations

Department of Public Health Sciences, School of Public Health, Edmonton Clinic Health Academy, University of Alberta, 11405 87 Ave NW, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

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BMC Medical Ethics 2014, 15:58  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-15-58

Published: 16 July 2014

Abstract

Background

Ocular gene transfer clinical trials are raising hopes for blindness treatments and attracting media attention. News media provide an accessible health information source for patients and the public, but are often criticized for overemphasizing benefits and underplaying risks of novel biomedical interventions. Overly optimistic portrayals of unproven interventions may influence public and patient expectations; the latter may cause patients to downplay risks and over-emphasize benefits, with implications for informed consent for clinical trials. We analyze the news media communications landscape about ocular gene transfer and make recommendations for improving communications between clinicians and potential trial participants in light of media coverage.

Methods

We analyzed leading newspaper articles about ocular gene transfer (1990-2012) from United States (n = 55), Canada (n = 26), and United Kingdom (n = 77) from Factiva and Canadian Newsstand databases using pre-defined coding categories. We evaluated the content of newspaper articles about ocular gene transfer for hereditary retinopathies, exploring representations of framing techniques, research design, risks/benefits, and translational timelines.

Results

The dominant frame in 61% of stories was a celebration of progress, followed by human-interest in 30% of stories. Missing from the positive frames were explanations of research design; articles conflated clinical research with treatment. Conflicts-of-interest and funding sources were similarly omitted. Attention was directed to the benefits of gene transfer, while risks were only reported in 43% of articles. A range of visual outcomes was described from slowing vision loss to cure, but the latter was the most frequently represented even though it is clinically infeasible. Despite the prominence of visual benefit portrayals, 87% of the articles failed to provide timelines for the commencement of clinical trials or for clinical implementation.

Conclusions

Our analysis confirms that despite many initiatives to improve media communications about experimental biotechnologies, media coverage remains overly optimistic and omits important information. In light of these findings, our recommendations focus on the need for clinicians account for media coverage in their communications with patients, especially in the context of clinical trial enrolment. The development of evidence-based communication strategies will facilitate informed consent and promote the ethical translation of this biotechnology.

Keywords:
Gene transfer; Gene therapy; Media; Newspaper coverage; Therapeutic misconception; Ethics; Informed consent