Sunday, March 29, 2009

Stem Cells + Media = ???

This post is for students in the Issues and Values in Biology course at Seattle Pacific University. I'll be visiting you later this week to talk about how the media interacts with science. There are a lot of great examples of how science is well represented or misrepresented in the news, but I've picked one story from a field I'm familiar with and that hopefully is interesting to you.

Even before President Bush signed an executive order restricting Federal support of embryonic stem cells, there was considerable attention paid to the differences between adult and embryonic sources of the cells. If you aren't sure what is the difference, I'd encourage you to check out this website sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Knowing the basics will help you understand why I've chosen the following example. There is still considerable conflict - especially in faith communities - about embryonic or adult stem cells. (See my post about President Obama's recent press conference for more details.) The field of stem cells is very large - there's something in the news every week; I'm focusing on one issue that was in the news about two years ago.

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 link needs a university subscription or an email from Dr. Hunter.) The bottom line in this report is a claim that there are cells in amniotic fluid (the nutrient that fetuses consume/breathe before birth) 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 stem cell funding was near the top of the Dems' political agenda for 2009. And when a news story overlaps with politics, there is invariably hype and hope attached to what the science could someday do. (Some social scientists studied this in relation to stem cells a few years ago. If your'e interested, read this paper - you'll need a school subscription or the email from Dr. Hunter.) Did this get published for the hype?

The lab where I got my PhD held a journal club focusing on this paper 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.) 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?

But fiirst, how did this story 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 and Bush’s Culture of Life ’Confirmed’ by Stem Cell Announcement. 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.

Interestingly, when a paper DOESN'T publish science stories, it raises eyebrows. 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 [scientific] 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.)
I look forward to meeting you in class this week. If you were not able to access the scientific papers linked above, Dr. Hunter will make them available to you as .pdfs. Also, feel free to post questions here if you have any before class.

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