The Blog

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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

ACT ethics adviser Green similarly dissembled. Green told the Post when the story first broke: "You can honestly say this cell line is from an embryo that was in no way harmed or destroyed." This wasn't true. Moreover, the ACT Web site continues to carry a statement signed by Green and other members of the ethics advisory board that incorrectly states, among other things, that "[T]he researchers . . . developed a method of producing stem cell lines by extracting and biopsying single cells (blastomeres) from these embryos. This technique, which leaves the embryos developmentally viable, offers a promising new way of ethically deriving human embryonic stem cell (hESC) lines for research and clinical therapies."

Lanza has been even more shameful in this regard. Reacting to his woodshed chastising by Specter and Harkin, Lanza whined to Reuters, "[I]t is not fair. It is not right. I know for a fact that removing the cell does not impact the embryo." But that is a classic hide-the-ball deception. It is indeed true that a single cell can be taken from an early-stage embryo without destroying it. But that isn't the same thing as developing the same single cell into an embryonic stem cell line, which Lanza did not do and which has not yet been done. His experiment required taking 4-7 cells from each embryo, destroying the embryo. He then cultured the cells together, permitting them to signal each other, and, perhaps, thereby promoted differentiation into "pluripotent" stem cells.<"p>

Lanza's deception is even more evident in a podcast interview with Nature that, as of this writing, remains on-line at Nature's website, despite his clear misrepresentation of the facts. For example, Lanza falsely claims that "[W]hat we have done, for the first time is to actually create human embryonic stem cells, without destroying the embryo itself." When asked by the moderator whether this technique will permit researchers to get around the funding restrictions imposed by President Bush, Lanza answers: "Well, as you know, the president objects to the fact that you would be sacrificing one life to save another, and in this instance there is no harm to the embryo that we're biopsying." As the world should know by now, this is pure balderdash.

The complete fallout from this fiasco is not yet known. But there are a few lessons we can learn from what has already transpired. Here are three:

1. Advanced Cell Technology has no credibility: As I wrote in the Weekly Standard, this is at least the fourth time that ACT has generated profoundly misleading media stories about its supposed scientific breakthroughs--only to have them discredited or revealed as substantially overblown. This time, however, some of the world's most widely read journalists were deceived into writing bad stories because ACT and Nature issued misleading press releases. Journalists don't like to be made fools. Thus, it is doubtful that ACT will ever again enjoy the kind of free publicity it has been able to generate in the past by hyping the results of its experiments.

2. The media is utterly obsessed with overturning President Bush's embryonic stem cell federal funding policy: Why did this arcane science story receive such high-profile and ubiquitous coverage? And why have many of these same outlets been so subdued in walking the now discredited story back? One reason and one reason only: ACT's supposed breakthrough was perceived as undermining President Bush's embryonic stem cell funding restrictions.

Most of the Fourth Estate fervently believes that President Bush's stem cell policy is responsible for undermining science and depriving sick people of cures. This is the prism through which all stories about stem cell research are analyzed. Thus, stories that would seem to support the wisdom of Bush's policy--such as the many advances in adult stem cell research in human studies--are underplayed or ignored, while embryonic stem cell-boosting news is often hyped to the hilt. With this as the context, the media's exaggerated coverage, and subsequent refusal to adequately correct the record, becomes easy to understand.

3. Science is in danger of devolving into a special interest: ACT's deception has cast klieg lights on a cancer that is corroding the foundation of science: As Big Biotech and its politicized allies among the science intelligentsia seek desperately to destroy the Bush funding policy in order to garner hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars, scientists are acting increasingly like special interest lobbyists who are more than willing to twist the truth to gain access to the public trough. This intense politicization of science threatens to erode the public's trust in the entire science sector.

Ethics aside, Lanza's published paper incrementally advanced scientific knowledge by proving that under the right circumstances, embryonic stem cells could be derived from very early embryos. This is not the same thing as generating stem cells without destroying embryos, a feat that has not yet been--and may never be--accomplished. But incremental experiments do not make international headlines or substantially undermine President Bush's stem cell funding policy. And thus was a journalistic debacle born.

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.