Healthy Evidence
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Vitamin C versus The Big C

BBC News is today suggesting (in it's headline at least) that vitamin C "keeps cancer at bay". The Independent has followed up the BBC story (here: ).

Problematically, the very 1st line of the Beeb's story explains that it actually only aids the effects of chemotherapy - and then much further on explains that this has only been studied in ovarian cancer.

Any more thoughts on this story? We'll be covering it later today on Behind the Headlines ( ).

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very poor reporting by the BBC on this one

The editors summary of the study clearly states "This early-phase human trial was too small to statistically confirm efficacy' - a point also made in the study itself. And this is somehow spun into "Vitamin C keeps cancer at bay"?

Plus, the researchers claims that "Pharmaceutical companies are unlikely to run trials, as vitamins cannot be patented" is taken entirely unchallenged and at face value. Just a quick check on Google Scholar can find scores of industry-funded studies into vitamins.

We wouldn't tolerate such uncritical "reporting" on economics or politics, so why do we when it is on a subject that is important as cancer survival?

Beeb should hang their heads in shame


And the Independent too. They had an equally hubristic report at

The writer, and some of the people who left comments, clearly hadn't read the paper, The paper itself was guilty of hubris. I said

"Overall survival trended toward improvement

with ascorbate addition to standard

chemotherapy (Fig. 4C and table S1),

and the median time for disease progression/

relapse was 8.75 months longer in the Cp +

Pax + AA arm than in the Cp + Pax arm

(Fig.4Dand tableS1),althoughneither one

achieved statistical significance because

the trial was not statistically powered to detect

efficacy. These results might also have

improved with more frequent ascorbate

dosing (13)"

It's absurd to present a non-significant result in this way. They seem to assume that there was an effect, but that the small sample size prevented them from detecting it. They don't even mention the alternative, and more plausible, interpretation, that they failed to detect an effect because there was no effect.

Not only was the study small, it was also unblinded. The only (probably) postive result was a reduction in the mildest forms of toxicity, i.e. those most likely to be susceptible to placebo effects.

I blame the journal, Science Translational Medicine, as much as the journalist. Their press release was a model of spin.


Here's David Gorski on this, at Science Based Medicine:

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The BBC article has been edited, presumably following complaints. The headline is now "Vitamin C 'gives chemotherapy a boost'"

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Original headline/story here:


I did drop them a line, but it would be the first time they listened to me! :)

So, I suspect they picked up bits of criticism that was lying around - well, good for them!

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Yes, it's nice to see a news organisation that will take the trouble to improve its work and respond to criticism. It certainly improves my trust in what they do.


You guys need to kind of "recruit" people like Helen Briggs, the journalist who wrote the BBC post, to the Sense About Science cause - I don't mean just trying to correct them, but get them involved and included. If journalists feel they are part of something rather than at the wrong end of a telling off, they are far more likely to ask questions and want to find out more.

Mind you, whether that would ever be possible with some like the reporter who has been publishing the scaremongering weather stories in the Express is another thing entirely - but getting a few on board would be nice!

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Good thinking JossS. It's great to see a story improved after the fact but it would be a whole lot better to prevent poor reporting in the first place (and replace it with genuinely informed, helpful information). How do we make it happen?


Have you heard of the Science Media Centre? They help with this:


I've complained about the original article. I was pleased to see the change of headline, less happy to see the actual article remaining the same. It's a shocking article. A very brief bit of research (just using google) would immediately flag up concerns expressed about Dr Drisko's enthusiasm for rather unscientific areas (quackometer anyone?). The actual paper is pretty miserable, as Orac points out. Such a tiny group in the actual trial, unblinded (two people withdrew because they weren't in the vitamin C arm, this does indicate there was a certain amount of prejudice in favour of the Vitamin C...), and subjective measures...

I would be much happier if the BBC published a whole new article, exploring how such reporting can happen.

The whole anti-pharma slant was just lazy, and unsupported.


I note that the headline "Vitamin C 'keeps cancer at bay'" is still the link on the most shared stories bit.


You've almost described our approach already there JossS! We talk to journalists to fix them up with scientists/clinicians to help them prepare their stories. We've let Helen Briggs know we can help in future. Journalists help us out too, on our Voice of young science media workshops

We were at the World Conference of Science Journalists last year, discussing our Making Sense of Uncertainty guide


Neat response by NHS Choices Behind the Headlines to BBC and other media coverage: "Vitamin C not proven to 'boost' chemo".


We had a go at the story too. Vitamin C always brings up the ghost of Linus Pauling - how the mighty can fall :(


BBC does this on politics&history too.


If you are talking about headline and content changing, there are actually some good editorial reasons for this which are widely misunderstood.

The editorial basis behind the bbc news website is the same as that of the rolling news channel - keeping information live while the story is still being covered.

That means that articles can and will be changed if the incoming story changes or as new information is learned.

It also saves confusion; if a story has a mistake in it it makes sense to correct the story rather than do a new one and end up having two, slightly different and possibly contradictory stories on the same topic. And if you end up with a long list of corrections and updates at the end of the story (a full history) then for most people the story becomes unreadable.

This is not a hidden practice in the BBC - articles have a "last updated" field which is automatically saved and displays the current datetime each time the story is re-published.

There are odd times, and this maybe one of them, where the correction should be made clearer - particularly when the story does not really fall under the "live and still running" category.

Most CMS and news systems work the same way.


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