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Medical scandals may have a negative impact on scientific research

Effect of media portrayals of removal of children's tissue on UK tumour bank BMJ Volume 331, pp 401-3


Media reporting of the UK organ retention controversies was associated with a fall in donations for ethically approved scientific research, finds a study in this week's BMJ.

This analysis shows how media scandals may affect scientific research, even when the research is not directly linked to the scandal.

The authors examined the relation between newspaper reports on the use of children's tissue for research purposes and donations to a UK tumour bank from 1998 to 2004.

Both newspaper coverage and tissue registrations varied greatly during the study period. However in late 1999, with the breaking of the organ retention story, coverage increased dramatically. This was associated with a significant fall in registrations of samples with the tumour bank, showing how the controversies may have affected unrelated areas of use of human materials.

Newspaper reports blurred the boundaries between organ retention and donations from living children with appropriate consent and ethical approval, say the authors. "During the height of the controversy, press reports suggested that the only proper response to any use of children's tissue was scepticism and questioning of professional motives."

Anecdotal experience also suggests that medical staff may have been deterred from asking for donations during the scandal, they add.

Although registrations began to recover towards the end of the study period, when medical sources attempted to restore public confidence and the scandal began to wane, these findings show that media reporting of science can have important implications for those who conduct and regulate science, they conclude.


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