Media Cooks Up Claim That Soy Sauce Treats, Even Cures HIV

By Benjamin Ryan (Editor-at-Large, POZ)

soy_sauceSoy sauce has become the latest supermarket item to contain the answer to HIV, according to a savory smorgasbord of reporting in the popular press. But don’t go downing bottles of the brine just yet, because there’s a small problem: The HIV-fighting molecule in question is not actually known to be in soy sauce at all, it is only “related to flavor enhancers found in soy sauce,” according to the press release from the University of Missouri School of Medicine that spawned the media reports.

The tall tale began in 2001 when the Japanese soy sauce manufacturer Yamasa, while searching for a flavor enhancer for the popular condiment, synthesized a molecule known as EFdA, which belongs to a family of compounds called nucleoside analogues. Eventually, laboratory research found that EFdA is a nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor (NRTI), which is a class of HIV-fighting drugs included under the nucleoside analogue umbrella. Not only that, but the molecule is highly effective at fighting HIV.

In a prime example of how the popular press tripped up on the finer details of this story, the LA Weekly, which lifted most of its article verbatim from the university press release, claimed, “A compound found in soy sauce may be more potent than the current top antiviral therapy in fighting HIV…. Seventy times stronger, in fact.”

Not quite. The molecule’s strengths are particularly notable when compared with those of the popular HIV drug Viread (tenofovir). For starters, EFdA is at least 10 times more potent at combatting “wild-type” (non-drug resistant) virus than Viread. And when HIV that has been exposed to Viread develops a particular resistance mutation called K65R, EFdA is 70 times more effective than Viread at fighting the Viread-resistant virus. (Thus, issuing a blanket statement about the molecule being perhaps 70 times stronger than other antiretrovirals is misleading; highly specific context is required.) In other words, the K65R mutation causes EFdA to become hypersensitive to the virus, making it even more effective as an antiretroviral to combat Viread-resistant virus than to fight wild-type.

Sarra S. Herzog, a spokesperson for Merck, which licensed EFdA from Yamasa two years ago, said she could not discuss the molecule’s development at this time, except to say that it is not in Phase II trials.

As for the widespread claims in the press that soy sauce itself contains an HIV-fighting component, the phenomenon appears to have stemmed from the University of Missouri press release, which initially had a headline claiming, “Soy sauce molecule may unlock drug therapy for HIV patients.” (After POZ alerted the university to the error, the headline was corrected.) Stefan Sarafianos, PhD, an associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology and biochemistry at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, said in an email to POZ/AIDSMeds that he bears “some responsibility for the misunderstanding in the press,” because in editing the press release he overlooked the faulty headline.

The initial draft of the press release also stated that EFdA is 70 times more potent than Viread, but left out the important fact that this is in the context of Viread-resistant virus. This perhaps explains the LA Weekly’s snafu on this point.

Sarafianos still stressed in his email that “EFdA is a very promising molecule.” And in the press release he stated the molecule “is less likely to cause resistance in HIV patients because it is more readily activated and is less quickly broken down by the body as similar existing drugs.”

As for the award for the most creative headline in the press? It goes to Tech Times, which touted: “Soy sauce may hold answer to HIV cure. You heard that right.”

To read the University of Missouri press release, click here.

To read the LA Weekly story, click here.

To read the Tech Times story, click here.

To read a longer article on EFdA from the University of Missouri, click here.

To read a 2013 paper in Retrovirology on EFdA’s hypersensitivity to Viread-resistant HIV, click here.

This article was originally published on POZ.com.

Diversity in Lincoln, Neb., through the lens of high school proms and teens

Bobby Caina CalvanBy Bobby Calvan (Reporter, The Heartland Project)

LINCOLN, Neb. – The assignment was straightforward: Produce a story about the growing diversity in the Cornhusker State’s capital city.

Certainly, we could have gone straight to the U.S. Census Bureau’s website and downloaded the data. We could have strung together a bunch of numbers and surrounded them with quotes and analyses.

We could have left things there.

But the editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, Dave Bundy, wanted a different approach. He wanted a story that put a face on the numbers.

Bundy had a novel idea — tell the story of his city’s diversity through the lens of a quintessential American institution: the high school prom.

As is often the case, schools serve as microcosms of a community’s evolving demographics – and Lincoln is no different.

As our report points out, about a third of the roughly 38,000 students attending Lincoln Public Schools are now from communities of color. That’s a huge jump from about 15 years ago, when the majority of the school district’s students – nearly nine in 10 – were of European descent.

In recent years, Nebraska has experienced a surge in its population of immigrants, many of them of Hispanic origin. But Nebraska is also a safe haven for refugees escaping the turmoil of their homelands, including Sudan, Burma and Iraq.

The prom package Bundy proposed would be a perfect vehicle for launching the Heartland Project, a first-of-its-kind collaboration aimed at broadening news coverage of communities of color – as well as gay, lesbian and transgender issues – by partnering with newsrooms across Nebraska to produce stories on folks and issues that often don’t get attention.

The Journal Star has been among the first of Nebraska’s newspapers to embrace the collaboration.

As the lead reporter for the Heartland Project, it was my responsibility to take the prom story and run with it. I set out to pursue the package in words, pictures and video.

As part of the assignment, I’d write an overarching story connecting prom and Lincoln’s evolving demographics. And I’d enlist journalism students to help produce vignettes, photographs and videos that would spotlight teens from different backgrounds.

Among the teens we profiled: a teenager who moved to Lincoln from Mexico City, a Burmese girl born in a refugee camp in Thailand, a student coming to terms with her sexual identity, and even a foreign exchange student from Sweden.

The prom project was about acceptance and belonging, regardless of background and life stories. It’s about inclusion and being a part of the broader community.

Indeed, “community” is at the core of the Heartland Project’s mission of collaborating with newsrooms across Nebraska to generate stories, like the prom package in the Lincoln Journal Star, to enhance coverage of the state’s increasingly diverse voices.

The Heartland Project is itself a collaboration. With funding from the Ford Foundation, the project brings together the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The ambitious project will undoubtedly have its challenges, as was clear during the reporting of the prom stories.

Some at Lincoln Public Schools had their guards up, and it took some cajoling to get cooperation. (Others, including teachers and family advocates who have long worked with refugees and the LGBT community, were more embracing.)

It’s only natural to distrust an outsider – in my particular case, an experienced reporter from Washington, D.C. – who begins venturing into areas seldom explored.

Some of those challenges come from my own deficiencies. Over time, I’m certain that I’ll develop better skill in directing inexperienced journalism students. When I move on from Nebraska in December, I hope to become a better teacher, editor and leader.

The prom project has been a learning experience for me, for my colleagues at the university and – I can only hope – for my crew of student journalists.

There is so much more to learn. Indeed, I hope the Heartland Project becomes the learning experience it is meant to be.

HIV/AIDS Underreported on Evening Cable News

MMFA_logo_vectorIn 2013 and the first quarter of 2014, weekday evening cable news shows on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC underreported major stories on HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and research, according to an analysis by Media Matters.

In 2013, CNN had 11 mentions, with MSNBC and Fox News each having four mentions. In the first quarter of 2014, CNN and MSNBC each had one mention, with Fox News having no mentions.

Shows included in the analysis: The Situation Room, Erin Burnett OutFront, Anderson Cooper 360, Piers Morgan Tonight, CNN Tonight, The Five, Special Report with Bret Baier, On The Record with Greta Van Susteren, The O’Reilly Factor, The Kelly File, Hannity, The Ed Show, Politics Nation, Hardball with Chris Matthews, All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.  

News transcripts between January 1, 2013, and March 31, 2014, were searched on Nexis. Segments on HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, research and history were included. Crime stories involving HIV/AIDS were excluded, as well as passing mentions and reruns.

To read the analysis, click here.

THC in Pot Affects Monkey SIV; Half-Baked HIV Reports Follow

By Benjamin Ryan (Editor-at-Large, POZ)

marijuanaA study showing that a component of marijuana modulates the disease progression of the simian version of HIV in the guts of monkeys has led to a rash of hyperbolic and highly inaccurate reporting of the research in the popular press. Publishing their findings in AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses, investigators from Louisiana State University (LSU) and the Tulane Primate Center gave twice-daily injections of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the main psychoactive element of marijuana and one of more than 60 cannabinoids in the drug) to four rhesus macaque monkeys and gave a placebo to another four monkeys during a 17-month period. Then they infected the primates with SIV, HIV’s simian cousin.

Analyzing the differences in duodenal, or gut, tissue between the two groups of monkeys above five months after they were infected with SIV, the investigators found that the THC-treated macaques had a higher level of CD8 central memory T cells and a higher level of a specific kind of CD4 cells that scientists believe may be summoned to restore CD4s killed by the virus, as well as an increase in the expression of certain cytokines that indicate a less inflammatory state.

Ultimately, the findings identify potential mechanisms that THC affects and that can in turn alter the course of SIV disease.

To read the reports in various online new sources, however, much greater scientific leaps had been made.

The study’s lead author, Patricia Molina, MD, PhD, a professor at the LSU Health Sciences Center, New Orleans, expressed in a email to POZ her “frustration with the liberal, inaccurate, and wrong approach that the journalists have taken to interpreting our results.”

The Daily Beast ran a headline that touted, “Weed Could Block H.I.V.’s Spread. No, Seriously.” And yet, as the article itself pointed out, the study was not conducted on marijuana, but on one of its ingredients. Furthermore, the study did not cover, nor did it make any projections about, THC’s ability to impede, much less outright block, the spread of HIV from person to person. ThinkProgress, meanwhile, put it rather more equivocally, if still inaccurately: “Marijuana May Help Stop The Spread of HIV.” The Guardian Liberty Voice went the furthest, with its headline: “HIV Infections Cured With Cannabis a Real Possibility.” The study was not concerned with a potential cure, nor even a systemic examination of THC’s effects on SIV throughout the monkeys’ bodies, but only analyzed the effects of the drug in the gut region.

To read these three particular reports (there are others) in chronological order, it would appear that Liberty Voice and ThinkProgress each essentially copied the reporting, much of it erroneous, in The Daily Beast. ThinkProgress even lifted a clause of telling similarity out of The Daily Beast, which wrote: “Mirroring other studies that link marijuana to HIV, the study illustrates…” ThinkProgress parroted, “This isn’t the first study to report a correlation between cannabis and HIV.” The study did not “link marijuana to HIV.” Rather, it examined a link between THC (which is a cannabinoid, not cannabis itself) treatment and changes in HIV disease progression—an important distinction. Previous studies have looked at whether medical marijuana helped battle symptoms such as nausea, pain and appetite loss among people with HIV.

All three stories mistakenly reported that the macaques were already SIV positive when they received the 17 months of THC, although in fact the primates were not infected until after the end of the THC treatment.

Perhaps most outlandishly, The Daily Beast stated, “In 2011 alone, 636,048 people died from AIDS.” That figure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, represents the total number of people throughout the entire HIV epidemic in the United States who have received an AIDS diagnosis and who have since died. An estimated 15,529 people with an AIDS diagnosis died in 2010.

In addition, both The Daily Beast and Liberty Voice mistakenly called SIV “RIV.” And Liberty Voice reported that “hundreds of researchers have reported that THC was able to pierce the RIV virus in monkeys.” There were not hundreds of researchers working on this paper, nor did they discover that THC pierced “RIV.” Additionally, “RIV virus” is redundant, since the “V” stands for “virus.” (ThinkProgress also referred to the “HIV virus.”)

Each of the news reports did drive home an important consideration: The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug—the same as heroin and LSD—which hinders research into the potential benefits of THC and pot.

Other inaccurate reports can be found in The Huffington Post, High Times, The Fix and Queerty.

To read a press release on the study, click here.

To read the study, click here.

To read the Daily Beast story, click here.

To read the ThinkProgress story, click here.

To read the Liberty Voice story, click here.

This article was originally published on POZ.com.

Be Smart in Covering Michael Sam As First Openly Gay Player In NFL Draft

Michael SamBy Sharif Durhams (Treasurer, NLGJA)

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s announcement Sunday that he’s gay will make him the first openly gay participant in the NFL draft, a development that’s likely to be the topic of news and sports media discussions Sunday.

We know from other “coming out” stories, those discussions among well meaning journalists can sometimes go awry.

NLGJA member and hockey writer Tony Jovenitti puts it more bluntly in his “Out in Left Field” blog. Some of the commentary, he says, is moronic:

Most people don’t try to be morons. And most people aren’t inherently morons. Hopefully, they just don’t know any better—and some education will help them. Otherwise, they are just homophobic assholes.

And since most of you probably don’t want to be homophobic assholes, I’m going to do all my straight friends a favor and give you a guide of how NOT to react to the Michael Sam story.

Jovenitti lists “five things that you should never say when you’re talking about this story.” The list is billed as being for friends to help them avoid seeming out of step, but it can apply just as well to journalists who will be talking about this unprecedented development.

The New York TimesESPN and Outsports had early word of Sam’s announcement and all have well crafted coverage of the story.