At a Glance

UCL and Moorfields PROs eye up coverage of trial

Is this the blind teenager whose eyesight improved?

He isn't blind but suffers from Leber's congenital amaurosis, a condition that causes progressive loss of vision. Steven Howarth, 18, found his night vision had significantly improved after undergoing a groundbreaking gene transplant in a trial carried out by a team at the University College London (UCL) Institute of Ophthalmology and Moorfields Eye Hospital.

How was media relations handled?

Ruth Metcalfe, media relations manager at UCL, oversaw comms for the story from the university's side, working with Beverley Bailey, interim director of comms at Moorfields. The story was press released under embargo last weekend, with professors Robin Ali and James Bainbridge, who led the work, both put up for interview.

So a classic 'Sunday for Monday' campaign then?

Not exactly. BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh was given exclusive access to the trials when they started a year ago, which meant the BBC has had a huge head start on this. It was the only broadcaster to run the piece on its Ten O'Clock News last Sunday, half an hour after the embargo lifted, and Ghosh's packages ran on other BBC bulletins throughout Monday.

What about print media?

Wary of embargo-breaking, the UCL/Moorfields PROs only briefed journalists from last Friday, but the broadsheets were full of it on Monday. Glowing headlines such as 'Gene therapy offers hope of sight to patients' (The Daily Telegraph) were typical. The Independent carried the story on its front page. Howarth's family also gave an interview to its local paper, The Bolton News.

What were the main challenges?

For the PROs, dampening down potentially lurid headlines about this trial representing a cure for blindness was one issue - although the findings have been a landmark for gene therapy technology, they are for one type of inherited blindness only.

Anything else?

UCL needed to make sure its institute (where the science was developed) was mentioned in the same breath as the world-famous hospital (where the trials actually took place). More interviewees needed to be available on Monday morning because Ali and Bainbridge were busy presenting their results at a key conference in Florida.

Further information;

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