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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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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.