Well, according to the headline in today’s Metro article they do. The Sun went for “Curry is a ‘cure for cancer’“, while the BBC were slightly more restrained – settling for “Curry spice ‘kills cancer cells’” – as were the Daily Mirror (with “Curry ‘kills cancer cells’ and other health benefits of the nation’s favourite dish“). Did scientists claim that “curry can cure cancer” as the Metro claims? Is curry a cure for cancer, as the Sun tell us?
No. From the conclusion in the paper’s abstract:
Curcumin can induce cell death by a mechanism that is not reliant on apoptosis induction, and thus represents a promising anticancer agent for prevention and treatment of oesophageal cancer.
From the articles in the Sun and the Metro:
Sharon McKenna, lead author of the Irish study, said her study suggested a potential for scientists to develop curcumin as a cancer drug to treat oesophageal cancer.
molecules in curry ingredients can destroy cancer cells
Curcumin, a component of the curry spice turmeric, can ‘kill cancer cells’ in vitro – this has led the authors of the study to suggest that curcumin may have potential as an anti-cancer agent, rather than claim that curry is a cure for cancer. The headline that claims that scientists say “curry can cure cancer” is misleading. The headline that claims “curry is a ‘cure for cancer’” is misleading. The Metro and the Sun have both printed headlines that are untrue.
Of the articles themselves, the reporting tends to be pretty reasonable (at least in comparison with the overblown, misleading headlines). Possibly the worst report is in the Mirror. While showing some restraint in headlining the piece “curry kills cancer cells” rather than claiming that scientists have found a cure for cancer, the article itself devotes all of fifty six words (yes, just 56 words) to reporting the research – and fills the rest of the piece with unreferenced and unlikely-sounding claims regarding the health properties of other curry ingredients:
[Of garlic] high levels of antioxidants combat cancer
[Of ginger] its antioxidants help strengthen the immune system
[Of cinnamon] This spice is popular in Chinese medicine and is used for colds, diarrhoea and severe period pain. It is also thought to help circulation.
Ayurveda, an alternative medicine from India, uses cinnamon for the symptoms of a range of illnesses, from indigestion to diabetes.
[Of turmeric] The distinctively coloured spice is a super-healer.
Well. The claims for cinnamon simply amount to reporting what alternative medicine practitioners use it for – there is no indication as to whether cinnamon is actually useful for these conditions. The descriptive term used for turmeric (“super-healer”) reminds me of the meaningless “superfood” label beloved of newspapers and lifestyle magazines. The blanket claims that “antioxidants combat cancer” and strengthen the immune system are simplistic and dubious. Apart from anything else, there is a Cochrane review that found an increase in mortality associated with certain antioxidant supplements, and one of the studies cited by the reviewers reported on a trial halted early due to increase in lung cancer among smokers and people who had worked with asbestos.
Who wrote the Mirror’s article about this scientific research? Ann Gripper. Her recent articles, according to the Journalisted website, include: “Andre Agassi and the sports stars recreational drugs hall of shame top 10″; “Kelly Osbourne’s dad Ozzy not keen to see her get married”; “X Factor: John and Edward Grimes are total Bjorks but I love them, admits Brian Friedman”; “Katie Price, chicken Kievs and some strange last suppers”; “Jenson Button’s car up for sale”; and “Kelly Brook shows off her buns for Calendar Girls – pictures.”
This is one of the problems that has been noted with media reporting of health and science stories – too often, lifestyle journalists more used to writing about celebrities are tasked with reporting on them. Specialist science reporters might (perhaps) do a rather better job – so why are they not employed to write such articles?
Another problem previously noted is the reluctance of the mainstream media to link to (or even to properly cite) the research they report on. The Mirror don’t even bother to mention the name of the journal that the research is published in – and neither do the Sun. The Metro mention the name of the journal, but do not cite the actual paper. The BBC link to the home page of the journal, but seem not to consider that a link to the actual research would be more helpful to readers.
I’ve concentrated here on the quality of the reporting: the media’s failure to emphasise that these positive results are from a study on cancer cells (the researchers “examined the effects of curcumin on a panel of oesophageal cancer cell lines”) rather than a study on the effects of curcumin in people; the highly misleading headlines; the diversion into unreferenced and improbable claims made about unrelated compounds in the Mirror; the fact that lifestyle correspondents are covering health & science stories; and the failure to link* to or properly cite the original research they report on.
There are other issues worth mentioning – such as the bioavailability of curcumin and the quantities of turmeric-laden curry that would need to be consumed.
The HolfordWatch blog has some discussion of curcumin, and quote Catherine Collins and Abel Pharmboy:
‘research-to-recipe’ equivalence would require consumption of 110g of turmeric powder daily. Mr Holfords exhortation ‘let the public eat curry’ is thus nutritionally irrelevant in the context of current research… [Catherine Collins in a BMJ 'rapid response' on "achieving in vivo biochemical influence".]
curcumin might be a promising anticancer compound but only if you could literally shovel quantities of it into the bloodstream [Abel Pharmboy.]
The BMJ rapid response that Catherine Collins’s comments come from has some other responses regarding competing interests that led to a rather interesting incident where Patrick Holford failed to declare his competing interests and accused Professor David Colquhoun of failing to mention “his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry” - despite Prof Colquhoun’s research being funded by the Medical Research Council or by the Wellcome Trust rather than Big Pharma.
*The research that prompted these news stories and this blog post? Well, that can be found via this link. As I’ve said before, the mainstream media would do us all a favour if they linked to the research they report on. I didn’t see a link (or a proper citation) in any of the reports I read. I did, however, see a link to the study on Twitter. Thank you @DRstarT.