Response to a rogue press release
At the start of May, we were surprised to receive a request from a journalist, “Pls can you send the study on mobile phones and brain tumours.” We were not aware of an article on this topic, but we realized they meant “Brain tumours: rise in Glioblastoma Multiforme incidence in England 1995–2015 suggests an adverse environmental or lifestyle factor”, available in press in the Journal of Environmental and Public Health since March. We spoke to the authors and they let us know they were bemused by the media coverage: a press release was sent by a third party, the charity MobileWise, without involving either the authors or Hindawi.
An analysis by experts prepared by the Science Media Centre and a response from Cancer Research UK agreed that the article itself did not support the headlines. Nevertheless, we worked with the authors and our editorial board to revise the article before publication of the final version, and the authors wrote a Letter to the Editor to explain some of the background and interpretation of the study. We are grateful to the authors and the editorial board for their work on this and the final article and its supplementary material is now published.
The epidemiology of cancer is important for public health, but interpretation of observational evidence needs caution. For example, a rise in a disease may be due to changes in diagnosis (the advent of CT and MRI, particularly in the past 20 years, has resulted in improved diagnosis for many neurological conditions), it can be difficult to determine which of several potential risk factors might be causing a disease – and this study does not attempt to – and while relative increases in incidence can seem alarming, absolute risk may still be low.
The figures below visually present the age-specific incidence per 100,000 people for glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) in the UK from a table in the supplementary materials. The graph is split into younger ages (under 45) and older (45 and above), because when graphed together the lines for the younger ages became indistinguishable. This split reflects the fact that GBM still primarily affects older people – note the difference in the y-axis. With this increase, by 2015 the highest annual incidence – for those in their late 70s – was around 17 cases per 100,000 people or 0.017% of that age group.
Plotting by year also shows how the incidence of GBM has changed across different age groups.
Because the prognosis of GBM is so poor, this rise in incidence in the UK needs further attention and other national datasets should be examined to see if this is replicated. We should, however, avoid over-speculation and sensationalism.
Matt Hodgkinson oversees publication ethics at Hindawi. He was previously a Senior Editor at PLOS and BMC. He has been an AuthorAID mentor since 2010.
The text in this blog post is by Matt Hodgkinson. It is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.