LabSpaces, a newer member of the science blogosphere, has some great bloggers. But as I recently pointed out, they’re failing miserably in one domain. LabSpace’s founder Brian Kreuger has an ambitious vision to create a sort of “facebook for scientists” (not his words). In his words:
LabSpaces.net is a social network for the scientific community designed to spread scientific news, maintain and create friendships, and harbor collaboration through the internet. The site serves as a web profile for researchers and labs, and is also a community for active communication in the sciences.
Included in his vision is, “a Science News feed updated daily with ~40 news articles.” This is where the problem begins. LabSpaces bloggers do what good science bloggers do, but the “featured article” section is a travesty. It is an uncritical regurgitation of institutional press releases and other PR documents. My interest is in proper reporting of medical information, and the articles consistently fail to deliver un-hyped and accurate medical information. The article that was the subject of my last critique was removed, along with the critical comment threat. Today he features another miraculous-sounding headline. How does this one measure up?
It’s titled “Discovery may help scientists boost broccoli’s cancer-fighting power.” Regular readers will see the problem with this but let’s make it explicit: it “begs the question”. It assumes that broccoli has “cancer-fighting power”, a tenuous assumption at best. The two questions assumed but unproved are that broccoli has cancer fighting power and that the reported discovery can improve on it. To assess this disaster, we need to look at both the LabSpaces article and at the study it came from.
The craptastic nature of Kreuger’s article (and though he probably cribbed it from a press release, it is his) is evident in the first paragraph:
A University of Illinois study has shown for the first time that sulforaphane, the powerful cancer-fighting agent in broccoli, can be released from its parent compound by bacteria in the lower gut and absorbed into the body.
If we are going to call sulforaphane a “powerful cancer-fighting agent” we’d better have some damned good data to back that up. In my mind, such an agent has been shown to fight cancer in humans. This compound has not. There are some studies that suggest that sulforaphane may have a role in cancer prevention at the cellular level—in rodent studies. Prevention of cellular damage is very different from “cancer-fighting”. If it turns out that this compound can actually help prevent or treat cancer in humans, it then has to be shown that ingesting broccoli is a useful drug-delivery modality.
“This discovery raises the possibility that we will be able to enhance the activity of these bacteria in the colon, increasing broccoli’s cancer-preventive power,” said Elizabeth Jeffery, a U of I professor of human nutrition.
“It’s also comforting because many people overcook their broccoli, unwittingly destroying the plant enzyme that gives us sulforaphane. Now we know the microbiota in our digestive tract can salvage some of this important cancer-preventive agent even if that happens,” she said
Ugh. The feces keeps getting deeper. Gut microbiota is a fascinating field of study. So is cancer. This piece of crap cribbed press release is not. To leap from “compound may help treat or prevent cancer” to “broccoli has the fairy dust and if cooked just right and exposed to the right bacteria etc it will prevent cancer” is a careless and dangerous assertion.
A commenter noted that the crappy article was based on a study. And what assertion did the (un-cited) study make?
These data are the first to report direct evidence of hydrolysis of glucoraphanin to sulforaphane in the cecum of rats and to show that sulforaphane is able to cross the cecal enterocyte for systemic absorption.
It’s true that the source based some of their reasoning and justifications for the study on some pretty weak epidemiologic literature, but the study is kind of interesting, and the conclusions are properly limited. This is very different from the irresponsible and hyperbolic advertorial on the front page of LabSpaces.
Maybe they can ditch all the other stuff and just stick with the blogs. Those are really good.
Lai, R., Miller, M., & Jeffery, E. (2010). Glucoraphanin hydrolysis by microbiota in the rat cecum results in sulforaphane absorption Food & Function DOI: 10.1039/C0FO00110D