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Front page science: collecting controls

by Eva Amsen

I found a copy of today’s Toronto Star newspaper on my coffee break, and was thrilled with the front page. All four front page articles in the print edition are about science! ALL OF THEM!

The two smallest ones are the first paragraphs of articles about a meteorite that crashed in a local town and about research in acoustic fingerprinting. The second-largest article (one column above the fold) is about Swine Flu, but it was the huge-with-photo main front page piece that really blew me away. It’s the only time I have ever seen a story about the relevance of good controls that prominently displayed anywhere.

Need for genetic controls – the story

For the past few days, a group of Tamil protesters have been outside the American consulate on University Avenue to demand intervention in Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, just up the street in Sick Kids hospital, a group of researchers has been desperately trying to get enough controls to prove that one of their young patients really has a genetic disorder that is making her blind so that she qualifies for genetic treatment. The girl was at risk of being pulled from the treatment group because the original controls were not taken from her ethnic group, and there was a chance that the mutation she has is common in her country of origin and not actually causing disease.

She’s Tamil, and her doctors had just a few days to find another 20 or so healthy Tamil controls…
You can see where this is going now: the researchers grabbed swab kits and consent forms, joined the protesting masses outside the US consulate, and within hours they had found enough controls.

“”I think it’s a great thing they are doing – it is always great to help with scientists,” said Navaratnarajah after handing over his contribution to the team.”

With the ongoing debates about whether bloggers will replace journalists, I think journalists just made a great case there. No science blogger could ever have been at the right place and time to get this amazing story, and without good journalism it would never have been the main story in a print newspaper.

Front page news

This is the week of the Sick Kids radiothon, and this edition of the paper also had an entire Sick Kids supplement, but usually that just temporarily puts patients or diseases to the foreground. To get a cheerful, serendipitous story about collecting controls to take up two-thirds of the front page, pushing down a current raging infectious disease to a mere column, is still quite something. Kudos to the Toronto Star and staff reporter Emily Mathieu!

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Richard Wintle April 30, 2009 - 4:41 PM

Heh. I, and many others, made the suggestion that they simply go out to the large, vocal and engaged Tamil community for this. The fact that a large number of its members were protesting just down the street was an unexpected bonus.
Sidebar – Elise Heon’s group did approach us to see if we had any Tamil DNA samples in our control sets – we don’t. The best pan-ethnic set of control DNAs I’m aware of is CEPH’s “Human Genome Diversity Panel”:http://www.cephb.fr/en/hgdp/diversity.php/, which has no Tamil representation.
I do love a happy ending (beginning?). 🙂

Eva Amsen April 30, 2009 - 4:49 PM

I do hope that it really _isn’t_ a common SNP in the Tamil population, otherwise it wouldn’t be as cool a story. But I guess if the 36 controls they already had didn’t show it, it won’t suddenly show up in the new samples.

Cath Ennis April 30, 2009 - 6:52 PM

@All four front page articles in the print edition are about science! ALL OF THEM!@
I’m tempted to say “only because the Leafs suck”, but the truth is that Vancouver’s print media is woefully inferior even when it’s not the playoffs. Our “tabloid’s”:http://www.theprovince.com/ front page today is devoted entirely to the Vancouver Canucks (who start their second round series against the Chicago Blackhawks tonight), while our “broadsheet”:http://digital.vancouversun.com/epaper/viewer.aspx (owned by the same people and usually covering the exact same stories but in a different order) is about 2/3 swine flu and 1/3 the Pope’s statement of “remorse” about the Catholic church’s role in the “residential school system disgrace”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_residential_school_system.
I buy the Saturday Sun every week, mostly for the crosswords, and get the rest of my news online!

Cath Ennis April 30, 2009 - 6:53 PM

oops, broadsheet link goes “here”:http://www.vancouversun.com/

Eva Amsen April 30, 2009 - 7:05 PM

The remaining tiny corner of the front page is an ad for an online feature about Wayne Gretzky – but not actually an article. Just a picture and a message telling you to go to the website.

Eva Amsen April 30, 2009 - 8:42 PM
Jennifer Rohn May 1, 2009 - 7:46 AM

Eva, that’s a wonderful story – thanks for making my morning. Although I think it would have been possible for a science blogger to get the story (say, if someone in the research team was a blogger), I suspect you are right that pitching it successfully to the news desk would have been a significant hurdle.

Eva Amsen May 1, 2009 - 2:31 PM

I don’t know. Someone in the research team would at best have been likely to just write about their side of the story – how hard it is to find controls, how stressed they were, way too much scientific detail about the disease, and they not have been able to get the nice third person quotes about them from the volunteers. I especially liked this because it was written by a non-scientist, and really shows how these mundane things _can_ be exciting and news. Besides, the scientists might not have known when it was okay to write about, and written about it after the fact as a result. It wouldn’t have been news anymore, not so current.

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