Halloween Hype?

A health story about germ-fighting pumpkins

As trick-or-treaters ready themselves for the annual ritual that is Halloween, health and headline writers around the world have found it hard to resist a rip-and-tear story involving pumpkins:

“Pumpkins May Scare Away Some Germs”St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Eco Speak blog

“Jack-O-Lanterns May Say ‘Boo’ to Microbes that Cause Yeast infections”The Oregonian

Perhaps the most candid assessment was the headline in the Los Angeles Times’s health blog: “Let’s milk Halloween for all it’s worth, shall we?” (The blog, Booster Shots, is appropriately subtitled “Oddities, Musings and News from the World of Health.”)

The source of the slew of pumpkin stories was a well-timed release in the weekly packet of stories e-mailed by the American Chemical Society, which has long had one of the best press shops in science. Headlined “Pumpkin skin may scare away germs” (sound familiar?), it reported that, by grinding up pumpkin rind, scientists from Korea’s Chosun University found a new chemical that apparently combats microbes that can cause troublesome yeast infections suffered by adults and children.

The researchers were searching for sources of new antibiotics that might help fight the new generation of “superbugs,” the antibiotic-resistant germs that are wreaking havoc in hospitals and clinics and can even be life-threatening to immune-compromised patients with transplanted organs orconditions such as HIV/AIDS. The target was a particularly nasty microbe called Candida albicans that can cause vaginal yeast infection, diaper rash, and other medical problems.

The South Korean researchers chose pumpkins because they have long been reputed to be a folk remedy for a host of maladies. While the attention has usually been on pumpkin seeds, pulp, oil, and flowers, this team focused on the untasty thick skin of the pumpkin.

It was a modest, preliminary study of the kind that is done routinely in laboratories around the world. But there’s a long road from laboratory research to the development of a safe and effective new antibiotic. Independent studies must be conducted to see if the experimental results can be duplicated in other labs. A promising drug must be studied in laboratory animals first; should that pan out, it may lead to human research that requires years of study to prove safety and effectiveness. Basic research is a trial-and-error process that follows a long, methodical road, with no foregone promises of success.

Those are the kind of caveats that science and medical reporters often include in their stories, but aren’t likely to make it into the quick-and-dirty medical tidbits that populate the online world—especially in stories pegged to holidays like Halloween. WTOP.com, the Web site of an FM radio station in Washington, D.C., indulged in a bit of hype, for example: “The jack-o-lantern you’re carving may one day help eradicate diaper rash and yeast infections.” That’s a big leap. The operative phrase, of course, is “may one day.”

In fact, the ACS press release simply said that “one protein had powerful effects in inhibiting the growth of C. albicans, in cell culture experiments, with no obvious toxic effects.” One of the few reporters to mention “cell culture” was Rachael Rettner of LifeScience.com, whose story was picked up on Yahoo! News.

The pumpkin research was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry under the weighty title, “Antifungal Mechanism of Novel Antifungal Protein from Pumpkin Rinds against Various Fungal Pathogens.” The journal authors said that the results of their initial study indicate that the newly identified pumpkin-rind protein, dubbed Pr-2, “is a good candidate for use as a natural antifungal agent.” The lab tests also suggested it might be effective in fighting fungi that attack crops, making it a potential pesticide candidate as well.

The team’s credentials and the study’s publication in a highly reputable scientific journal from the world’s largest scientific society certainly merited a round of short media stories piggybacking on the annual Halloween hullaballoo (always popular with science writers). But that’s no excuse for bloggers and journalists to forego the usual skepticism. Too often, researchers don’t submit negative studies or scientific journals don’t publish them. So these gee-whiz stories usually end up being one-day wonders, never to be seen again.

Other medical stories, like the effect of coffee on health, are media perennials that often follow a yo-yo path, as contradictory stories along the way grab headlines and confuse the public. But if pumpkin rind doesn’t pan out as an antibiotic, we’ll probably never hear about it. My old friend and colleague at The Washington Post, the late medical writer Victor Cohn, often said that there were two kinds of medical stories that were guaranteed to get media attention: “new hope” and “no hope.”

The germ-fighting pumpkin story helped feed the 24/7 Web beast, but it had competition from some other great pumpkin stories however. And I do mean great pumpkins. Humongous pumpkins. This month, there were reports from Half Moon Bay, California, that an Iowa man’s 1,658-pound pumpkin won the thirty-sixth annual Safeway World Championship Pumpkin Weigh-Off. Not to be outdone was a pumpkin that reportedly reached 1,725 pounds in the Ohio Valley Giant Pumpkin Growers Weigh-In.

When the fall festivals are finished, perhaps these giant pumpkins and their skins can be shipped off to Korea for further study by the Chosun University scientists. In the meantime, stick to the inside of pumpkins for pies and pumpkin seeds, and please don’t treat your wounds or infections with leftover pumpkin rinds.

AUTHOR’S ENDNOTE: At the American Chemical Society’s spring 2008 meeting, Louisiana biochemists reported that proteins found in alligator blood might also be a source for developing new antibiotics to treat yeast infections. It seems that these fighting creatures may have developed the natural ability to fight off infections after their bloody battles. This, too, spawned irresistibly corny headlines, such as “Alligator blood may put the bite in antibiotic-resistant infections.”

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.