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?

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Public Abuse of Science

Looking for a gold standard for the public misuse of science? I would recommend wrapping sheep, gay sex, PETA, a bearded scientist, and the tabloid juggernaut into a single 500 word article. Be careful not to combine any of those terms...

Today's New York Times reported a story with the headline: "Of Gay Sheep, Modern Science and Bad Publicity." The Times article took a rather objective third person view detailing the struggles one particular researcher. It just happens that this guy studies the sexual orientation of sheep. As a scientist working in a rather controversial field (which happens also to be linked to a sheep named Dolly) I appreciated this perspective. At least the writer stopped short of using some bad puns. If that's what you're looking for, check out, “Science Told: Hands Off Gay Sheep,” “Gay Rams Get Ewe Turn on Hormones” and “Gay Rams So Straight fo Ewe.”

My main gripe is that no regard for checking the facts was made by any of the individuals writing these stories (except for the Times author). The tabloid papers and websites found a story that would cater to their readership (The extremely sheepish countries of Australia, New Zealand and England seem to have the most of these reports.) PETA may have initiated this fiasco, but the media perpetuated it.

This researcher's life has been threatened!

For those of you interested, read the original report (Physiology & Behavior Volume 83, Issue 2 , 15 November 2004, Pages 233-245), and without academic access, read the abstract at the National Institute of Health's scientific database, Pubmed. I could follow most of this work because I am accustomed to the scientific lingo. Should journalists that pick up these stories use "inaccessible language" an excuse to distort fact?

The end results for me are (1) less respect for PETA, and (2) questions why PETA and a small number of gay rights activists are focusing on this guy without taking the time to do their homework? Aren't there more inviting targets than a bearded introvert that has chosen to study interesting questions about sexual orientation? Or is science evil to both the fundementalist right and the liberal progressives?

What do you think went wrong here?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Blinded Controlled Studies

What happens if a blinded investigator discovers something startling while reviewing the information from a clinical trial? Part of enrolling in a research study is that the subject waives his or her access to personalized care. But how do we draw the line?

This morning, I attended a scientific talk that presented data from a clinical study involving MRI imaging of carotid arteries at risk for plaque rupture and embolus formation. (Those events often lead to stroke.) In one case, an individual initially had no evidence of vascular disease, but three years later, showed a considerably more complex lesion in the vessel. The plaque had ruptured and the lipid core was continuous with the blood flow. Theoretically this is a severe risk for morbidity, but the patient had no symptoms. Just for reference, if that type of lesion was found in an autopsy, the cause of death would be immediately settled.

I was surprised to hear that this patient and his surgeon were kept blinded about the condition. Thanks to the research ethics class I am currently taking, I wondered why the patient was not told. (The notoriously cantankerous professor that hosts the seminar did the favor of asking the question I was wondering about!) The speaker replied that no one has any scientific evidence that a lesion like this actually correlates to stroke. Since this MRI technique is new, and it is the first time that such lesions are measurable in vivo, there could be a large number of folks walking around with this type of problem without experiencing a problem. The study is still going on. Do we have to wait for these folks to die?

I wonder if this 60 year old man just happened to be the pilot on my flight home for New Year's, or the guy that drives my bus, or someone's grandpa...

Whoa... Long Time No Blog

As is the case for novice bloggers, I have been MIA for a few months. Okay, half a year. Well, I have a renewed committment to improving my skills at writing and public scholarship, so will be posting once a week for as long as I can keep that up.

I am taking a course this quarter called Research Ethics and Regulation. Check out this web page for details. Since I am devoting more of my efforts to research ethics, there will be quite a bit more unity to the posts.

I have updated my reading lists and put a follow-up (shorter, more concise) version of the bioengineering education post up. Any one out there know of department chairs that might agree with me? If so, please get back to me in 5+ years after I finish my residency!