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19/01/2006 - New Glioma research incorrectly dismisses Mobile Phone Usage

New Mobile Phone Use and Glioma paper
Hepworth SJ, et al, Mobile phone use and risk of glioma in adults: case-control study
BMJ Online First, 20th January 2006

This paper and its accompanying Press Release make the following claim without appropriate justification: "Use of a mobile phone, either in the short or medium term, is not associated with an increased risk of glioma." (Abstract Conclusions)

It is Powerwatch's view that this is a highly misleading claim, either through a deliberate and politically motivated attempt to spin the information towards a set goal, or due to incompetent assessment of the results in the report.

The study does, indeed, find that result for the gliomas studied - but the sample used excluded a large majority of the high grade (fast growing) glioma cases because: "We interviewed 51% of those patients with glioma who were eligible, mainly because rapid death prevented us from approaching all of them." (Discussion - Potential Bias, Paragraph 1)

They continue: "As early death is most likely in patients with high grade tumours, it is not surprising that participation rates were higher in those with low grade tumours. A bias in these results would occur only if mobile phone use was related to severity of tumour, which was not supported by our analysis, where odds ratios for mobile phone use showed no increased risk for high or low grade tumours." It is equally misleading here to state "which was not supported by our analysis" when they do not in fact present any analysis for mobile phone usage differences between the cases with low-grade and high-grade gliomas. Also, although they admit to not having a representative number of high-grade gliomas, they do not provide any case numbers for the two groups. Once again, this can only be due to either an ulterior motive or incompetence, as the only reasonable conclusion in this respect would be to say "due to the small number of high grade cases in our study, we cannot assess the effect of mobile phone usage on high grade gliomas".

Simplistically, in middle-age adults, about 50% of gliomas are low grade and 50% are high grade. Most high grade gliomas are fast growing and fatal within a few years. As they only included 51% of possible cases, and admit that there was a strong bias (chi2 p=0.001) towards low grade tumours, then we are left to assume that they had, in fact, very few high grade glioma cases. In which case, this is further evidence that they have no scientific justification for commenting on either high grade gliomas or gliomas as a whole. Without research to suggest otherwise, it is perfectly plausible to suggest that mobile phone usage may have a large impact on high grade glioma cases that were in the 49% of cases omitted.

It is very disappointing that these well-respected scientists can draw such badly justified conclusions from their research. Had this study limited its conclusions to the results found from the available cases, and commented that no conclusions can be drawn about the cause of approximately half of all gliomas, the study would have been fine. As it is, it presents a highly misleading overall picture, and may make it harder to get funding to look into causes of high grade gliomas, about which there is still little known. One can only hope that the conclusions are down to an incompetent misrepresentation as opposed to a more sinister motivation.

As high grade gliomas seem to be fatal within a short time of diagnosis, it is clear that a prospective study is now needed that will record details of cases as they are diagnosed.

Alasdair Philips
Director of Powerwatch