We’ve all been there – it’s 2 o’clock in the morning and we’re googling like crazy to find some new miracle cure for whatever illness is troubling us. Let’s face it, that’s probably how many of us ended up finding cannabis or CBD oil.
Unfortunately, with Google throwing up hundreds if not thousands of articles of varying quality and reliability, it’s not always easy to sort the wheat from the chaff, never more so than at the moment as we find ourselves in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
Even national newspapers often print misleading headlines promising a future cure for everything from cancer to dementia based on studies performed on cells in petri dishes or rodents.
It’s important then to develop our own critical thinking when reading materials found online, to ensure that we only turn to publications that rely on robust evidence which is never taken out of context or to create clickbait.
1. Is the Article Really Selling a Product?
In our 21st century digital world, ranking highly on Google is one of the main ways companies sell their products. They’ve got all sorts of tricks up their sleeves, including articles and blog posts that while not overtly selling anything, are still a kind of marketing. So, if you find yourself clicking on a health article and it happens to be a commercial site, remember that they are ultimately trying to sell you something so the information may not be reliable.
2. Understand the Difference Between Preclinical and Clinical Studies
Knowing the difference between preclinical and clinical studies is one of the key skills in understanding the confusing and sometimes contradictory information out there, particularly in the field of cannabis research. Almost every week, there is a new story about cannabis curing some malaise, including the coronavirus – but these reports are often based on very preliminary preclinical studies that will probably never make it to humans.
Preclinical studies take place in laboratories where scientists test drugs they are developing on cell cultures in petri dishes. If this proves successful, they continue testing the drug on animal models of the disease.
However, contrary to what may appear in newspapers and online, a successful preclinical trial on mice or rats does not guarantee the same results in human subjects.
Professor Manuel Guzman, who has spent the last thirty years investigating the antitumoral properties of cannabinoids, knows very well that mice and men are not the same.
“One has to consider when one cures cancer in a mouse, it’s not really cancer, it’s a model of cancer which has only part of the characteristics of human cancer. So the gap between curing the cancer in a mouse and a human is huge. Even in a sophisticated cancer model in mice – in the end mice are mice. It’s not just a 25 gram human. Mice have a much simpler biology than ours. They have a strong capacity for tissue regeneration and a stronger immune system than us. In mice there are hundreds of molecules that can cure cancer, but there are very few molecules that can do that in humans.”
When a pharmaceutical company is confident there’s sufficient preclinical evidence showing a drug’s safety and efficacy in animals, the next step is to move onto human studies.
Most licensed medicines have been through three phases of randomised clinical trials, which if successfully completed show they are safe, more effective than a placebo, and give information about appropriate dosing.
Phase 1 clinical trials are carried out on healthy subjects to ensure a drug is safe, so it’s not until phase 2 trials are reached that a drug’s efficacy for a specific condition is measured. Even still, a further stage involving hundreds and sometimes thousands of patients is needed to fully ensure a drug really works, identify dosing levels and that it is without serious side effects.
Due to seventy years of restrictions on cannabis research, there are comparatively few clinical studies for cannabis medicine. That’s why on the whole, clinical evidence does not reflect patients’ experience.
However, without clinical trials, doctors do not feel confident prescribing a drug and it will not get recommended by health regulators such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).
3. Go Straight to Source
Newspapers and online news sites love to jump on studies promising cancer breakthroughs or that promise a cure for neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. With our new-found knowledge about the importance of differentiating between preclinical and clinical trials, next step is to pin down the original study they’ve based their story on.
Most scientific papers are published in medical journals which can be found on Pubmed, an archive of biomedical and life sciences journals. Before an article is published, it will have been peer-reviewed, whereby an expert in the field examines its relevance, robustness, and reliability. This means that if a study is eventually published in a medical journal, the findings, on the whole, can be trusted.
You can even use Pubmed as a search engine to look for peer-reviewed papers for your own particular condition. That’s not to say you’re expected to read a scientific paper from start to finish. If you’ve managed to understand 50% of the abstract (the introductory first paragraph), you’ve done well. But it does mean you can cross-check any sources quoted in newspapers or online to make sure they are genuine and not taken out of context.
It’s no easy feat deciphering what information is reliable on the internet, but hopefully, with these three tips, you’ll be more equipped in the future to differentiate between marketing hyperbole and evidence-based educational articles.