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Hype or Hope?

A number of news outlets are reporting on an Australian research team's discovery of a genetic classifier that has promise to predict the risk of autism.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Melbourne and published in Molecular Psychiatry, reports that the 237-SNP classifier correctly predicted autism spectrum disorder with more than 70 percent accuracy in people of European descent.

The classifier, which was developed using data from a European population, was only 56 percent accurate when applied to a Han Chinese cohort, however, and the authors acknowledge that "further studies to validate the specificity and sensitivity of this model within other ethnic groups are required."

But this information — as well as a number of other key details — were not to be found in media coverage of the study, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker reports. Coverage of the test so far "is rushed and incomplete, at best," the blog notes, adding that "nobody seems to get it quite right."

The Tracker lays blame with the University of Melbourne's press release, which "confounds 'risk' with test,'" and recommends that reporters ask "how much help this test can be to families with children at risk of autism, and how likely it is to miss kids with autism or to predict the diagnosis in kids without it."

The charge of "science by press release" comes hot on the heels of a wave of criticism of the press materials prepared for the ENCODE project and further underscores the complexities involved in raising awareness of scientific discoveries while steering clear of hype.

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