Maybe it was Sunday reporter Simon Mercep’s seven years working for Fair Go that gave him the knack for sussing out claims that sound too good to be true.

His story last night on cancer sufferers who are receiving large intravenous doses of vitamin C as part of their cancer treatment was the most balanced, most rational look at the high-dose vitamin C issue so far in the recent flurry of TV stories that have looked at vitamin C as an alternative treatment for serious medical conditions – from cancer to pneumonia.

Even the promo blurb for the Sunday piece last night suggested the show’s makers were out to finally give the issue a decent treatment.

vit cHealth or hindrance?

What’s in an orange apart from juice, pips and pith?

For increasing numbers of cancer sufferers there’s also hope in oranges, but is it false hope? They are pumping themselves with highly concentrated Vitamin C in the hope of buying more time and even getting better.

Mainstream medicine often warns them off Vitamin C therapy because they argue there’s not enough research to back it.

However, New Zealand scientists have now taken a crucial first step in deciphering how Vitamin C might affect tumour growth.

This week a debate where emotion and science clash head on.

Compare that to the work of Melanie Reid on rival show 60 Minutes, who in her first story on high doses of vitamin C being used to treat an ailing farmer who had swine flu but recovered after receiving high-dose vitamin C, didn’t bother to interview any independent scientists. The name of that episode: Living Proof.  Discussion of that story, which Reid followed up with a marginally better piece that at least sought the views of an expert but succeeded in showing Reid’s lack of objectivity on the issue, has been raging on this Sciblogs thread.

Mercep didn’t have to really push the boat out to do a good job on the story last night. He just resorted to the basic journalistic focus on balance, which I hasten to add, doesn’t always apply particularly well to science where the weight of evidence is often overwhelmingly on one side.

But what Mercep did was give everyone a fair hearing. He interviewed two scientists – Dr Shaun Holt who is critical of high-dose vitamin C (“avoid and try something else”)  and the University of Otago’s Margreet Vissers who is undertaking research into the interaction of vitamin C and cancer tumors and sees potential (and a need for more research funding). He also interviewed a Waikato oncologist who was sceptical of the benefits of high-dose vitamin C (“I wouldn’t try it myself”) and a GP who is actually treating around 20 patients with it.

He rounded things out with the all-important human anecdotes, by interviewing two people suffering from cancer who have received high-dose vitamin C  at a cost of up to $300 a week (one of whom has just died). The result is that the story covers the science well and the emotional side too and you get a more accurate idea of the efficacy of this type of treatment – which is still largely unknown, but where the scientific community see enough potential to carry out further research in this area.

I really felt for the two cancer victims, the older of which was extremely pragmatic in admitting that he didn’t know whether the vitamin C was behind him feeling better, but that with his life at stake, he was willing to try it and other things in his attempts to fight his cancer.

It can be done

What the Sunday piece shows is that a complex science-related issue can be dealt with intelligently, rationally and compassionately in a relatively short segment on a prime time current affairs show.