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Understanding Diabetes Research

Confused by diabetes studies? You’re not alone

There is a lot of diabetes research out there, ranging from small studies on possible new treatments to large studies with policy recommendations. Even the ways in which research gets reported may vary widely, from highly technical articles that are difficult for most people without medical training to understand, to mainstream media pieces topped by attention-grabbing headlines that sometimes overstate a finding’s importance. It may be challenging even for the experts to separate the wheat from the chaff, so what’s an ordinary person who is interested in learning about diabetes to do?

From my perspective as a university research associate and a person living with type 1 diabetes, here are some things I advise people to consider in order to better understand and evaluate the relevance and accuracy of a report:

How close to treatment is the subject of the study?

Some reports are about basic scientific findings dealing with the interaction of molecules or how a pathway in the body works. Others focus on a specific treatment or drug. For the most part, studies on the basic science end of the spectrum are crucial, and it’s good to try to understand their principles. However, keep in mind that they are often far from being translated to human use, so there’s usually no need to take any personal action based on one of these studies just yet.

On the other hand, reports about how a drug performs in humans may mean it’s time to pay closer attention. New types of medications, new medical devices – these all get tested and reported on by the companies and institutions that develop them, so you may be getting an early glimpse of something that might affect your treatment in the near future. You might consider bringing especially interesting reports along to your next doctor’s appointment.

Who is reporting the study?

Always consider the source. Are you reading about the research in the mainstream media? An online report from a website you’ve never heard of? A local update from a research university? No source is entirely good or bad, but you should be warier of some: News outlets want sensational stories – which may mean painting a more optimistic picture of the study than is warranted. Always try to read articles about a given study from multiple sources to make sure you aren’t missing some crucial piece of information.

Who published the study?

There are many well-respected medical journals, and you can’t be expected to be able to judge them all. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If the study was originally published in a prominent peer-reviewed publication like Nature or the New England Journal of Medicine, it’s likely a finding that scientists think is important. If, on the other hand, the research was published in a smaller or more specialized publication, chances may be somewhat lower that the study is really important in the field. If you’re not sure how important a particular journal is, look up its level of influence among scientists and health professionals via Eigenfactor.

What did the study actually find?

Look at the nitty-gritty of what was studied. Was it ten patients at a single hospital, or a thousand spread out across the nation? What treatment did the control group receive? Did the researchers report “p-values” – a measure that indicates the likelihood of the study’s results being the result of random variation?

Getting to that level of detail may require getting the full study, rather than just its abstract, which, in many cases, is the only portion available for free. Abstracts often include the e-mail of the principal author of the study; most researchers will be happy to send you a PDF of the full article. If not, check with your doctor. Sometimes medical professionals have access and could print you a copy.

Need help staying on top of the scientific news? There are several good ways to make sure you do:

  • The American Diabetes Association provides research summaries and roundups for patients in the form of news briefings and digests of its own research on both type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
  • The JDRF regularly publishes press releases summarizing recent findings from funded groups.
  • Set up a Google Alert for terms like “type 2 diabetes” or “insulin resistance.”

I encourage all of us affected by diabetes to get informed!

Karmel Allison was born in Southern California, diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of nine, and educated at the University of California, Berkeley. She now lives with her husband in San Diego, where she is loving the sunshine, working in computational biology at the University of California, San Diego, and learning to use the active voice when talking about her diabetes. In her spare time, Allison enjoys people, Milan Kundera, rock climbing, and the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. Allison is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies, or affiliates.

© 2012 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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