Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Research from Scientific Meetings - Cautious Optimism

In light of the recent meeting of the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), I wanted to take a little time to explain to the non-science folks out there:  1) what is a scientific meeting and 2) what can we conclude from meeting highlights that are press-released and thus have been shared like wildfire across various social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter.  By the way, those live tweets from various scientists/MDs, such as the Allergist Mommy, convinced my to join Twitter (FYI - you can find me at FdAllergySleuth, although I have NO idea what I am doing!).

1) What is a scientific meeting?
Poster session from a recent meeting for the Society for Neuroscience.  Image source:

The short answer is that scientific meetings are geek-fests (no, not quite Comic-con), where experts within a given field (e.g. allergy, asthma, and immunology) from all over the world, convene in a particular location (e.g. San Antonio, TX) for a day or more of scientific talks, posters, and social gatherings.  The major goal is to mingle and share the most recent findings from the lab bench/clinic both formally and informally.  It is a chance to share ideas and perhaps generate new ideas to solve many unanswered questions in a field.  The more brains together with diverse backgrounds, discussing ideas, the more likely solutions will arise, often from quite unexpected places!

2) What can we conclude from a scientific meeting?

Cautious optimism.  At this point, you may be wondering why I am including the "cautious" part.  Findings at a scientific meeting are literally hot off the press lab/clinic findings.  In my experience, there were often bits of my poster that literally came from experiments carried out in the lab two weeks prior to the meeting!  To present a research poster/talk at a meeting, you submit a brief summary of your research (abstract) well in advance (often many months), and you are virtually guaranteed the opportunity to present.  What this means is that there really isn't a lot of oversight on who or what gets presented.  That said, most scientists are not going into a meeting intending to present complete "crap."  We have a reputation for quality to maintain after all, and quality is absolutely essential in this line of work; however, the findings are not peer-reviewed.

What is peer-review?

In order for scientists/medical doctors to publish their research findings in a scholarly journal, the findings must be vetted by two or more experts within a given field (e.g. peer-reviewed).  Most often, this process is anonymous, although sometimes it is fun to guess who it may be :).  The reviewers won't know the names of the scientists whose work they review, and the scientists whose paper is reviewed will not know the reviewers.  All details of experiments are up for scrutiny.  In fact, it is very rare that a paper will be accepted for publication without some kind of revision required by the reviewers.  If you look closely at a research article, you will see a date when the article was submitted to the journal for review and a date that it was accepted for publication.  Generally, it is at least three months between these two dates, and it is not uncommon to see a six month to a one year lapse of time (poor saps!). 

Now that I've explained what peer-review is, what does this mean for findings from a research meeting, like the recent AAAAI meeting, whose findings are not peer-reviewed?  In summary, it means that the work from a scientific meeting has not been highly scrutinized, and probably will not appear in a scholarly journal for many months or not even at all!  Because scientists can and do make mistakes (yes, we are normal human beings), the peer-review process is essential to maintain trust-worthiness in research conclusions.  Peer-review is by no means a perfect system (yes "crap" does occasionally make it through the peer-review process), but it is the best we've got to maintain integrity of findings.  This also happens to be a reason why science takes so damn long to translate findings into cures for things like allergy and asthma.

So, as you see the findings pouring out of the scientific meetings, greet those findings with cautious optimism.

How you can search for and find peer-reviewed articles:
Google Scholar

What you can do to ensure quality information on the web:
1.  Do your own search for peer-reviewed articles in PubMed and Google Scholar.  Although, some of these articles may be a bit dense for the non-expert (and expert alike!).
2.  Look for research summaries from reputable sources like the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America or FARE (usually with a .org behind their name).  Also included would be sources from reputable educational institutions like the Mayo Clinic (most with a .edu behind their name).
3. Make sure that news articles cite or link back to the original sources.  It is common practice that news articles will not do this (blog post for another day on how much it peeves me that even "reputable" news sources frequently fail to do this!).
4.  Always be skeptical of websites providing no reputable sources, but make bold claims such as "vaccines cause allergies.I'm not saying that this particular topic should not be up for scrutiny, but what I am saying is "cause" is an incredibly strong word scientifically, and you want to be absolutely sure that anything with a "cause" in the article is backed by peer-reviewed evidence.

Summary of exciting findings out of the 2013 AAAAI meeting:
January 31 - New medical journal highlights clinical research and care for patients with allergies, asthma and immunologic disorders
February 23 - Exposure to Certain Airborne Chemicals Linked to Immune System Effects and Asthma Diagnosis in Children
February 24 -Biological Medication for Allergic Asthma Also Appears Effective at Treating Chronic Hives in Patients Not Successfully Treated with Antihistamines
February 24 -Food Allergies May Affect Children’s Growth
February 24 -Lower Rates of Allergic Disease Found in Children Born Outside the United States Appear to Reverse After Prolonged U.S. Residence
February 25 -Injecting Epinephrine into the Lower Rather Than Upper Thigh May Be More Effective in Overweight Children
February 26 -Latest Research on Allergies, Asthma and Immunology Presented at 2013 AAAAI Annual Meeting
Final thought
Wouldn't scientific meetings be that much more exciting if they were more comic-con-esque?  I have visions of giant antibody costumes...  
Image source:


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