Saturday, January 27, 2007

Amniotic Cells Misconstrued

Consider this entry the second in a series of accounts detailing the peril of trusting journalists to relay scientific findings to the public. Conveniently for my handful of readers, I made the first post of the series two days ago.

This time the issue lands closer to home.

In the January 2007 issue of Nature Biotechnology, a group of scientists from Wake Forest University led by Anthony Atala published an article titled, Isolation of amniotic stem cell lines with potential for therapy. The claim from this report is that there are cells in amniotic fluid that have some of the same potential to form tissues as embryonic stem cells.

Nature Publishing Group publishes many of the most respected journals in science, and Nature Biotech is one of their gems. Each issue probably generates 5-6 press releases. The relationship between these top tiered journals and the mass media is important. It is the stock pathway for the dissemination of cutting edge science into public knowledge.

Unfortunately, 'cutting edge' in science rarely equates with 'breaking news.' Breaking news is too dependent on context. In this case, the work presented took about 7 years to complete, AND as many are aware, stem cell funding is near the top of the Dems' political agenda for 2007.

The lab in which I work conducted a journal club on this paper yesterday, about 3 weeks after the news broke. (Journal clubs are opportunities to assess for ourselves the merits of a publication, how our experiments might need to change in light of others' results, etc.) You should know that our lab has a reputation for being one of the most skeptical in the field of cardiovascular stem cell biology. The outcome of this animated discussion was unanimous agreement that these cells were much more like (maybe identical to) a type of adult stem cell (mesenchymal stem cells) that are multipotential, but not pluripotential like embryonic stem cells. I could outline about 8 reasons for this conclusion, but that would distract from the real issue I want to bring up: what happens when 6 pages of dense scientific data is condensed to 500 words?

So how did this hit the press? My first contact with the information was an article in a Seattle newspaper. Later, I read an op/ed by Charles Krauthammer suggesting that Bush's decision to limit progress in embryonic stem cell research might have been vindicated with this publication. Initially, I did not catch (but should have expected) headlines like Vatican official ‘rejoices’ in news of amniotic stem-cell discovery, Bush’s Culture of Life ’Confirmed’ by Stem Cell Announcement, and Only one answer to embryonic stem cell research: Never. Lost in all of the political fallout from this report was a statement made by Atala that this information should NOT be used to argue against the funding of embryonic stem cell research.

Also of note is that science writer Michael Fumento announced a cover-up of this information committed by the New York Times when that paper opted not to publish the report. It turns out that their genetics reporter looked at the Atala paper last week and "deemed it a minor development." Hooray for Times reporter Nicholas Wade and his science editor Laura Chang! Ms. Chang went on to say, "There is so much hope invested in stem cell research that we have grown increasingly concerned about prematurely fanning these hopes." Fumento lamented on his blog that it's "too bad many editors don't realize they have science writers who don't understand - or worse, misrepresent - science." Exactly! Isn't it strange when we can agree on a statement but not a sentiment?

I believe there are some key questions left to be answered:

1) Why did Nature Biotechnology permit publication of a paper that presented mundane data in conjunction with amazing claims?
2) Is the manner by which science writers collect their information about scientific reports thorough enough?
3) Since it increases visibility of science in general, could it actually be better for science that the public gets this information? (Misrepresented as it may be.)
4) This conversation about stem cells is as polarized as ever. What is needed for the stem cell debate to de-escalate into a constructive discussion?


BuddhistValkyrie said...

Furthermore, what about the risks brought on by in vivo collection of the cells, not to mention the very high rate of abortion that is associated with non-positive amnio results?

This whole thing smacks, to me, of what happened with Hurlbut and altered nuclear transfer.

Which just proves journalists don't learn, any more than anyone else.

thomas said...

Thanks for your reply, Kelly. I agree with you about the analogy to Hurlbut. (He is the bioethicist who proposed the somatic cell nuclear transfer with altered nuclear transfer (SCNT-ANT) as a compromise between destroying embryos and generating embryonic stem cells that are unable to implant into the uterus. It looks like Hurlbut has set up a website that educates us about the technique.) It seems to me like everyone is looking for an easy solution to a problem that is still not entirely understood.

I met Bill Hurlbut last summer. He is a nice guy and is genuinely interested in finding compromise between the factions debating embryonic stem cell research. Unfortunately, he has shut out all other arguments about the legitimacy of stem cell research. It was clear to me that he was so supportive of his technique that he had dismissed the potential biological limitations of the SCNT-ANT. (For example, are these cells even karyotypically normal? Will they develop into cell types in the same manner as ES cells? Rudolf Jaenisch and others are working on these questions, but we are far from the answers.) When I pointed out that embryonic stem cells cannot implant into the uterus either, he resorted to the defense of the frozen embryos that will be destroyed anyway. Also, he had no qualms about harvesting human eggs for the procedure. After all, an egg is not a human being. My question for him was whether the donor was a human being.

I think that Bill Hurlbut was successful in packaging a complex scientific technique into understandable terminology that politicians and pundits could run with in the name of ‘compromise.’ The experts in the SCNT-ANT method still will argue for continued support for ‘regular’ ES cell research, in the same way that Anthony Atala wrote a letter to congress stating that his paper should not be evidence to slow funding for ES cell work. The difference so far is that no one like Hurlbut has stepped up to be the amniotic stem cell champion.