I cannot do anything without having a cup of black coffee in the morning and I feel this sentiment is shared by a really large segment of the population. Coffee is delicious and like most other foods and beverages can both be bad or good for you. Some very interesting and trustworthy studies have been published in recent years about the positive and negative effects of coffee on gastrointestinal health, on the nervous system and on heart disease and it would appear the jury is still out on where coffee sits within a balanced and healthy diet.
Or, apparently, it was still out until recently, when the headlines of some of the most popular newspapers in the world announced that three cups of coffee will actually save your life. Much like CPR or an epi-pen, I guess. When talking about these ridiculous pop-science claims, I often try to remain relatively neutral on the validity of the study itself. Not all research needs to be high-impact to be worthy or interesting, and the vast majority of the time the blame lies on the news outlets that sensationalize the claims rather than on the researchers actually doing the work. However, this particular case does, indeed, take the (coffee) biscuit. As the news article reports, this study was funded by Scientific Information on Coffee (funded by Illycaffè, Jacobs Douwe Egberts, Lavazza, Nestlé, Paulig, and Tchibo). Obviously, this is not reliable. One cannot seriously blame coffee companies for asking their employees to look into the health benefits of their product – but this raises the question as to why the papers reported the results of this study as though it was the voice of the scientific community knowing full well about the huge conflict of interest casting a shadow of doubt on its results. The author of the study has a degree in (sports) journalism from the University of Bedfordshire – where one would assume he would have been taught about conflict of interest and the integrity of one’s sources. Rather than ignorance, I would chalk his choice of subject to the fact that this type of story is popular because it’s fun, cheerful and easy to understand. However, anyone reading the article will know where the results came from – and presumably will walk away with the notion that scientists can be bought. Of course, while individual scientists are just as subject to greed as the general population, the scientific community is largely above literal bribery. Naturally, if you are not a part of the scientific community you don’t know that and you rely on the media to give you a sense for how honest scientists are. And trusting scientists is important because it affects how much the public trust their (real) findings, which has a huge impact on people’s health. In conclusion, publishing this inane coffee study as though it were science is not simply a waste of time and platform, it is actively counter productive.
Nonetheless, while people were wasting their time learning about the miraculous benefits of three cups of coffee a day, there was actually some wonderful science news coming out this week (how large do these cups need to be, by the way? I don’t think I could manage three oversized Gilmore Girls-style cups a day, no matter how good it may be for my liver). For example, work from researchers from the University of Shanghai, China, have discovered a new potential way to stop colorectal cancer. These scientists have looked at over 50 samples from colorectal cancer patients and realized that the cancer cells in these samples were producing abnormally high levels of a molecule known as SGK1. They therefore thought that SGK1 might have something to do with why the cancer progression and started targeting it in cancer cells cultivated in a dish in the laboratory. They found that cells with high levels of the molecule could move around really efficiently and were harder to kill than regular cells. They also identified that SGK1 works in concert with another molecule called p27, which is a well-known factor that drives cancer cells to multiply and become more dangerous. This led them to ask themselves whether blocking the activity of SGK1 could block the progression of colorectal cancer. They therefore treated mice with colorectal cancer with drugs that neutralize the effect of SGK1 – and found that mice that received the treatment had smaller tumors that grew more slowly and would therefore be easier to treat. If these results can be replicated in patients, this would be exceptional news for colorectal cancer patients. While of course these results are still a long way from being applied in hospitals on a day-to-day basis, it is science like this that is slowly changing the lives of patients every day.