Saturday, August 16, 2008

Of (Hairless) Mice, Men & Moisturisers

Sometimes it's what the reporters and editors leave out of news stories that makes them interesting - and alarming.

Yesterday's Age included this story by Nick Miller:
Mice moisturiser link to skin cancer criticised

COMMON moisturiser creams including one sold in Australia have been shown to double the risk of skin cancer, in new US research. (original punctuation)
The Age wasn't the only news outlet to carry the story. Here's The Daily Mail:
Moisturisers used by millions of women every day could increase risk of skin cancer

Moisturisers used by millions of women every day may raise the risk of skin cancer, scientists have warned. (original punctuation)
Here's The Daily Telegraph (UK):
Common moisturiser 'could cause skin cancer'

Moisturisers used by millions of people each day could be responsible for causing a variety of skin cancers, according to a study. (original punctuation)
Here's The National Rupert:

Study: Moisturisers cause skin cancer

From correspondents in Paris

MOISTURISERS used by millions of people have induced skin cancer in experiments on mice, a new study says. (original punctuation)
Here's ABC Online:
Skin moisturisers may increase cancer risk: research

Australians have long been told by cosmetic companies that the best way to reduce skin damage from the sun is to apply moisturising cream, but some US biologists say some common moisturisers may promote skin cancer.
I'll finish the roundup with a shot of sanity from The New Scientist:
Moisturisers cause cancer in mice - but don't panic

Research on mice suggests that moisturising creams increase the risk of common skin cancers – but there's no need to throw away your moisturiser just yet.
Predictably, this is the least garbled of the reports I've read. It continues:
"We don't know whether or not there's an effect in people," says Allan Conney of Rutgers University, Piscataway, New Jersey, who carried out the study.
Elsewhere - in the tabloids, the larger tabloids and at Aunty on-line - the story was reported with the same two-part narrative:
  1. Play up the findings of the study.
  2. Obtain a local expert (or experts) to pooh-pooh the study.
First alarm the readers then find a local expert to tell them not be alarmed. The huffier your local expert gets about the issue the stronger the air of controversy:
Gavin Greenoak, director of the Australian Photobiology Testing Facility at the University of Sydney, said the potential for alarmism was high and the paper should not have been published.

"The acknowledged need for more research is an understatement bordering on irresponsibility," he said. There were technical reasons why parallels could not be drawn with moisturiser on human skin. (Nick Miller in The Age)
If Greenoak was quoted accurately, he goes a little too far in suggesting that the paper should not have been published - unless his objection was to the experimental design of the study, rather than its potential to create alarmism. If alarm has been created, the responsibility for it belongs with the journalists and editors who chose to play the alleged risk.

One thing that makes hairless mice very different from normal humans is that hair isn't the only thing that normal mice have that's lacking hairless (or nude) mice. Hairless mice also lack a thymus, the organ that turns ordinary lymphocytes into t-lymphocytes or 't-cells'. Lacking t-cells, hairless mice are a pushover for cancers of all kinds. Unfortunately, you won't find this information by Googling 'hairless mice' - the first page you'll find is this one, a pet-owner's guide apparently written by someone ignorant of this fact.

To learn why hairless mice are so different from normal humans you'd have to take the time to ask the right expert the right questions. But then you might discover something truly alarming to a journalist - that your story had no real news value at all.

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