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The Hard Cell

Reports of a major breakthrough in the science of stem cells were premature, and wrong.

12:00 AM, Sep 11, 2006 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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IT HAS BEEN ABOUT two weeks since the international media excitedly declared to the world that Robert Lanza, head scientist at Massachusetts biotechnology firm Advanced Cell Technology, had derived human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos. The story sparked a media feeding frenzy, with newspapers and television stories around the world loudly applauding the advance as a way to circumvent President Bush's embryonic stem cell funding limitations.

But the actual paper, published in Nature, told a different story. Within a day, critics noted that this supposed "breakthrough" was actually far less substantial than was being reported. Indeed, as I wrote in The Weekly Standard, the media, relying on misleading press releases issued by ACT and Nature, had wildly exaggerated Lanza's accomplishment. In fact, rather than creating stem cell lines without destroying embryos, Lanza had destroyed every embryo used in the experiment--just as in conventional embryonic stem cell research. (To the best of my knowledge, only The Economist and Newsweek initially reported the facts of the experiment accurately.)

In the two weeks since the initial headlines, most--but not all--of the media have reluctantly, in some cases grudgingly, walked their stories back. As usually happens in such cases, the correctives have been far more subdued than the original reporting. For example, the New York Times originally boosted the experiment in a major, 1490-word, front page story in which science reporter Nicolas Wade's lead sentence stated, "Biologists have developed a technique for establishing colonies of human embryonic stem cells from an early human embryo without destroying it." Yet, even though this was unequivocally false, the Times never issued a formal correction. Instead, it published mild, inside-the-paper stories, one reporting that Nature had clarified its press release about the experiment, and the other a brief AP report about a senate subcommittee hearing at which Senators Arlen Specter and Tom Harkin chastised Lanza and ACT's bioethics adviser Ronald Green for misrepresenting the experiment to the public.

The Washington Post was similarly less enthusiastic about correcting the record than it was about reporting the great stem cell non-breakthrough. The initial front page story, by Rick Weiss, stated that the "new work . . . shows that even a single cell plucked from an early human embryo can be coaxed to divide repeatedly in a laboratory dish and grow into a colony of stem cells." Even though the experiment did not, in fact, demonstrate this, there has been no formal correction from the Post.

Without taking sides, Weiss later wrote something of a he said-he said story, reporting that Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had challenged the veracity of the claim that embryos were not destroyed, alongside Lanza's retorts to the criticism. In a more visible story, the Post also reported Senators Specter and Harkin's anger over ACT's deception. Yet, the Post also editorialized about "a new method for extracting embryonic stem cells that its backers say poses no additional risk to human embryos," and chastised President Bush for not embracing the technique, even though it was known by then that the "new method" remains purely speculative.

Meanwhile, ACT representatives continue to pretend that they actually developed a new technique for deriving stem cells without destroying embryos. Indeed, nearly two weeks after the story was shown to be overblown, ACT issued a press release touting Lanza's appearance before Specter's subcommittee. It quoted CEO Walter Caldwell asserting that the firm had "progressed from applying the single-cell derivation technique from the mouse [which had been accomplished last year] to the human," which in fact has not been accomplished.