by Dr Alex Richardson
So when is a trial not a trial? Thank goodness that someone in the media has exposed this non-story for what it really is.
For those of us trying to get proper scientific research done in this area, it is more than frustrating to see the media promoting this sort of nonsense yet again. (I long ago lost count of the number of supposed 'Durham Trials' I have been asked to comment on by the media. In fact the only published, peer-reviewed and properly controlled trial from there is our own Oxford-Durham study)
Ben Goldacre has done a fine job here (as he usually does). For additional commentary and responses on this topic, and other pseudo-science he has exposed, see his excellent column Bad Science - The Trial That Ate Itself.
And the follow-up (16 Sep 2006) Bad Science - Looking Deeper Into My Fishy Friends.
Fish oil is clearly a matter of huge national importance. Channel 4 and ITV (and the Daily Mail, and the BBC) all report on a plan by education officials in County Durham to give £1m worth of omega-3 fish oils to 5,000 children as they approach their GCSEs, and see how it improves performance.
Contrary to what the pill-peddlers would tell you, the evidence as it stands is incredibly thin. There is a handful of small trials published in proper journals, at last count three positive, two negative and none in "normal" mainstream children. All these "studies" you keep hearing about in the media are little more than cheap promos for the pill pushers, with no control group, and crippled by inadequate research methods. So bravo for Durham.
Oh, hang on. The Eye-Q study is a cheap promo for Equazen's Eye-Q range: there is no placebo, in fact there is no control group whatsoever. They're going to the trouble of giving 5,000 children the tablets, six a day, under the watchful eye of the nation, hyping the study, with all their hopes pinned on success, and then they're going to measure their performance against ... what the council predicts it should have been without the tablets.
This is - let me be quite clear - a rubbish study, which has been designed in such a way that it cannot provide useful results: it is therefore a waste of time, resources, money, and parents' goodwill.
In the name of fairness, I decide to put this modest proposal to Dave Ford, chief schools inspector for Durham, the mastermind behind the project. Then it all gets a bit weird. "We've been quite clear," he says, "this is not a trial."
Well, hang on. I call up to tell you it's a bad trial, and suddenly that's OK because it's not actually a trial? The Press Association called it a trial. The Daily Mail called it a trial. Channel 4 and ITV and everyone covering it all present it, very clearly, as research (damning quotes and clips at badscience.net).
In four solid years of moron baiting, this is definitely the most surreal defence I've come across.
I look at Durham council's press release for it. They call it a "trial" twice, and a "study" once. You are giving something and measuring the result. Your own descriptive term for this activity is "trial". How is this not a trial? To excuse you out of a hole?
Exasperated, I move on to Equazen. Their Eye-Q tablets cost £7.99 for a 10-day supply, and they have given £1m worth to Durham (street value, as the drug squad say). This has bought them flattering news items on peaktime terrestrial television, and large colour photos of their products on prominent news pages.
Adam Kelliher, director of Equazen, clarifies further: this is not a "trial", so I cannot critique it as such. Nor is it a "study". It's an "initiative". By now I'm losing the will to live. Madeleine Portwood, the senior educational psychologist running the study, calls it a "trial" (twice in the Daily Mail). You are giving "X" and measuring change "Y". Every write-up describes it as research. The Equazen press release, for God's sake, calls it a "trial". This is a trial, a stupid trial, and simply saying "ah but this is not a trial" is not an adequate - nor indeed a particularly adult - defence.
We do not have good evidence that omega-3 will improve normal children's behaviour and intellect. We need proper research. It is clearly of burning interest to the nation. You could take this rubbish Eye-Q "trial" (yes: trial) and give half the kids placebo, and you'd have a perfectly serviceable bit of research, giving useful data.
Add in a couple of baseline and endpoint tests, maybe shave off some of these thousands of children, and it would cost no more than this foolish promotional sham. You'd be sitting on a huge, definitive study. The very thing that is needed. The very thing that mainstream academics are struggling to get funding for. It might well be positive. But what if the result is negative? Scary huh, Equazen?
So I asked the director: "Would you give a million pounds' worth of free supplements (and dummy pills without the active ingredient) to a research team who were doing a methodologically meticulous randomised double blind placebo controlled trial of omega-3 fatty acids in mainstream children?" And he said yes. Let me know if they tell you no, at the usual email address.