The Magazine

Science by Press Release

More hype from stem cell entrepreneurs.

Sep 4, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 47 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

"NEW STEM CELL METHOD avoids destroying em-bryos," the New York Times headline blared. "Stem cell breakthrough may end political logjam," chimed in the Los Angeles Times. "Embryos spared in stem cell creation," affirmed USA Today. Reporting the same supposed scientific achievement by Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), the Washington Post quoted the company's bioethics adviser Ronald Green: "You can honestly say this cell line is from an embryo that was in no way harmed or destroyed."

Unfortunately, you can't "honestly" say that. The above headlines--like Green's statement and innumerable similar press accounts around the world--are just plain wrong. While ACT did indeed issue a press release heralding its embryonic stem cell experiment as having "successfully generated human embryonic stem cells using an approach that does not harm embryos," the actual report of the research led by ACT chief scientist Robert Lanza, published in Nature, tells a very different story. In fact, Lanza destroyed all 16 of the embryos he used, just as in conventional embryonic stem cell research.

And that's not the only facet of Lanza's work that the press got wrong. The ACT team did do something new: It worked with very early embryos, of 8 to 10 cells each, rather than the 100- to 200-cell blastocysts usually used in such research. From each of these early embryos, the scientists removed not one cell--as several press accounts reported--but 4 to 7 cells. This misreporting is important because it creates a materially false impression.

During in vitro fertilization of an egg, a single cell can be removed from a very early embryo like those Lanza used in his research. Usually this is done for genetic testing, before the embryo is implanted in the mother, and the embryo remains viable--unlike Lanza's embryos. Lanza did, however, derive two lines of embryonic stem cells from some of the early cells he had removed. Maybe one day someone will succeed in making stem cell lines from an early embryo that survives, but Lanza didn't. ACT and the media--in their desire to boost popular support for embryonic stem cell research--simply took a leap of faith and portrayed an experiment showing that something might be possible as if the feat had already been accomplished.

Reporters should be more sophisticated. They should know that the history of science is rife with promising early experiments that never came to fruition. Reporters should be especially aware of this in the field of cloning research, where the old saying, "Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me," definitely applies.

And this is especially relevant to ACT. For, though the company has never been guilty of the outright scientific fraud perpetrated by South Korean cloning re searcher Wu-suk Hwang, its misleading press release is all too typical. In the last few years, ACT's publicity department has repeatedly generated high-visibility stories about supposed scientific breakthroughs--which turned out later to be grossly exaggerated or flat-out false.

In the December 3, 2001, issue of U.S. News and World Report, for example, a nine-page cover story by Jo annie Fischer extolled the creation by ACT scientists of the first cloned human embryos. But ACT's supposed coup shriveled on inspection. A human egg can be made to divide a few times without actually turning into a viable embryo. The ACT report was quickly debunked by the science community. Rudolf Jaenisch, a cloning expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scathingly dismissed it as "third-rate science."

Undeterred by ACT's hyping of its efforts, the Atlantic Monthly ran a story by Kyla Dunn less than seven months later. Titled "Cloning Trevor," it amounted to 16 pages of boosterism for the company's cloning research--even as it acknowledged in passing that the development previously reported by U.S. News was "largely judged to be preliminary, inconsequential, and certainly not worthy of headlines."

"Cloning Trevor" described ACT's attempt to create a cloned embryo of a young boy named Trevor, described as suffering from "a rare and devastating genetic disease." The malady is treatable with bone marrow or umbilical cord blood transplants. But in a few cases, the patient's immune system rejects the transplanted cells, threatening his life. Rather than risk those side effects, Trevor's parents traveled to ACT to have him treated with cloned embryonic stem cells.

For several pages, the article lauded the scientists at ACT, only to reveal that "all hopes for developing an experimental cure for Trevor were dashed" when the boy developed early symptoms of his disease, and his parents were forced to turn to traditional treatments. In reality, of course, there was never any hope of treating Trevor with cloned embryonic stem cells. Even if a cloned embryo had been created from Trevor's DNA, and stem cells had been derived from this cloned embryo--a feat still to this day beyond the reach of science--injecting the cells into the boy would have been blatantly unethical because of grave safety concerns. It might even have amounted to illegal human experimentation.

In January 2004, ACT again was the subject of laudatory international headlines when Wired magazine carried a breathless report by Wendy Goldman Rohm to the effect that Lanza had successfully grown cloned human embryos to the 16-cell stage. This would have been big news--if it had been verified. But it never was. To my knowledge, Lanza never subjected his work to peer review or published a report of it in a respected science journal. Moreover, ACT president Michael West refused to confirm to the Economist that the company had created a 16-cell cloned human embryo.

So now, it's déjà vu all over again, with ACT lionized by a media stampede over a purported research breakthrough that the company did not actually achieve. This is not to say, of course, that deriving embryonic stem cell lines from a procedure that allows the embryo to survive is impossible--only that it hasn't been done. Lanza's experiment does demonstrate that stem cell lines can be obtained earlier than previously thought. But that wasn't good enough for ACT's pub licity office or the lazy reporters who regurgitated the press release. The failure to report this story accurately amounts to massive journalistic malpractice--and once again ACT is laughing all the way to the bank.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His current book is Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.