More bad science journalism: stem cells

January 23, 2009

It seems that the first clinical trial using embryonic stem cells has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.  The fact that the approval comes just days after the inauguration of President Obama is apparently a coincidence.  An article about the trial appeared today in the Wall Street Journal, and it is a doozie.  An excerpt:

Limits on stem-cell research, which prevented federal funding and were imposed by Congress and former President George W. Bush for ethical and religious reasons, have had a chilling effect on both academic and corporate research involving such cells. Proponents of stem-cell research say restrictions have delayed development of promising new treatments, while critics contend that harvesting stem cells from embryos destroys human life.

The problems with the article are not so much in what it says (though “contend” is a strange choice), but in what it leaves unsaid.  To wit: the article gives the impression that this is the first clinical trial using stem cells, and it casually casts some blame at President Bush and Congress for the delays.  In fact, there are presently over two thousand clinical trials underway using stem cells — adult stem cells.  That this article fails to even make the distinction between adult and embryonic stem cells makes its reference to “ethical and religious reasons” unintelligible. This is either an example of peculiarly flagrant journalistic ineptness, or brazen political slant.  I suspect the latter.

A parallel article in the New York Times does a somewhat better job.  It makes the adult/embryonic distinction, and it alludes (vaguely) to other trials underway with non-embryonic stem cells.  As a closing gesture it mentions that, by the way, it is possible to make pluripotent stem cells (the equivalent of embryonic stem cells for therapeutic purposes) from adult cells, so the justification, however thin it may once have been, for killing human embryos to harvest their stem cells no longer exists.  It may be true, as the article claims, that the adult-derived pluripotent cells increase the risk of cancer, but exactly the same problem is true of embryonic stem cells. Again, bad science journalism.

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