Why science communications professionals must handle breakthroughs with care
As a science communications agency, we often read fascinating stories about the new innovations and discoveries driving the science, technology and engineering markets forward. Earlier this year, a former biomedical scientist in our science PR agency team came across some particularly compelling news: the discovery of a new class of antibiotics with the capability to wipe out MRSA infections.
Antibiotic resistance has been an issue in modern medicine for a long time now. Year upon year, an increasing number of bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotic treatments, making it difficult for doctors to make the most common infections treatable. This has particularly been a problem with MRSA, a common infection in hospitals that is now classed as a superbug due to its extreme resistance to antibiotics. Although MRSA is harmless when on the surface of the skin, it can make an individual very ill if it gets inside the body.
However, the discovery of a new antibiotic class has raised new hopes for the ongoing battle against MRSA. As covered by The Guardian, U.S. scientists at Rhode Island Hospital tested 82,000 synthetic molecules and the effect that they had on roundworms infected with MRSA. Results showed an encouraging 185 compounds demonstrated effects, and so from these 185 compounds the selection was narrowed down to two of the most promising ones.
Combined with computer modelling, experiments with these two compounds showed that they eliminated not only normal MRSA cells, but dormant ‘persister’ cell subpopulations as well. These cells have roles in chronic MRSA infections and exhibit particularly high levels of tolerance to antibiotics, and so this research is promising.
Handling new scientific discoveries
Although the drug is still some years away from human trials, these findings mark a great turning point in the battle against MRSA antibiotic resistance, but one that must be handled with care by science communications professionals and the media. PR can be an excellent way of promoting research and raising awareness, but it’s crucial it strikes the right balance. Science PR agencies and professionals must ensure coverage doesn’t exaggerate the facts, while still conveying a positive message that will engage the public.
The Rhode Island Hospital research needed to raise awareness around another fantastic breakthrough in science and medicine, but it also had an important public call-to-action. MRSA is a widespread and often fatal infection and the media can help in its prevention by driving home the message that people should only take antibiotics when necessary. Awareness should also be drawn to the consequent scientific effort needed if a bacterium does become resistant, should the public choose to ignore that message.
Science PR should handle breakthroughs with care because subsequent public reaction can lead to long-lasting changes in behaviour, ultimately shaping a safer and healthier world. If not handled with care, a potentially life-saving message may be lost in hysteria or indifference.