Science Reporting

I read the following short article in the paper today:

Protein shown to relieve pain better than morphine

Molecular and cell physiology professor Mark Zylka led a study on the role of prostatic acid phosphatase protein in chronic pain relief.

The study discovered that the PAP protein converts adenosine triphosphate, the neurons which cause pain, into adenosine, eliminating pain.

Zylka and researchers from UNC and the University of Helsinki are the first to conduct a study on the protein’s involvement in pain-sensing neurons.

PAP proved eight times as effective as morphine in pain relief, and can be effective for up to three days.

PAP, like morphine, can be injected into the body, but the study hopes to formulate the protein into a pill.

It was obviously incorrect since ATP (adenosine triphosphate) isn't a type of neuron. So I looked into the research of Mark Zylka, a professor here at UNC, to see what the article should have said. Over on Science Daily there was a more complete summation of the research, and one that made a lot more sense.

Here's the important two paragraphs from the Science Daily article:

The scientists pinpointed the identity and role of a particular protein that acts in pain-sensing neurons, or nerve cells, to convert the chemical messengers that cause pain into ones that suppress it.

The next question for the researchers was how PAP suppressed pain. It is already known that when pain-sensing neurons are stimulated, they release chemicals known as nucleotides, specifically adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This in turn sets off the events that invoke a painful sensation. But if ATP degrades to adenosine, that inhibits the neurons that transmit pain signals, thus relieving pain. Through a series of experiments, the UNC researchers showed that PAP removes the phosphate group, generating adenosine. Their study is the first to identify and characterize the role of such a protein in pain-sensing neurons.

Apparently whoever condensed the news brief for the local paper didn't realize that neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) aren't the same thing as neurons (a type of cell). That's why you have to be careful when you read or hear something in the popular press or media that sounds really amazing. Journalists (and apparently journalism students) often aren't familiar with the concepts that they're writing about. That can result in some glaring mistakes--and sometimes those mistakes are repeated in other media outlets which assume the initial account is correct.

Another mistake is that in the original Zylka said "It is entirely possible that PAP itself could be used as a treatment for pain, through an injection just like morphine," whereas the student paper reported it as "PAP, like morphine, can be injected into the body." The original statement is conjecture but the student paper article changed it into fact. Oops.


GA Girl said…
We don't need science taught in schools...someone in government said that awhile ago.

Your critical mind is wonderful - as long as it's not focused on me...the critical part, not the mind part ;-)
tiff said…
This is a long-standing pet peeve of mine. Thanks for showing us how what the scientists say (whcih is usally couched in VERY careful language) gets turned into absolute certainty by some reporter who doesn't know a ganglion from a gang.

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