The fierce public debate over killing human embryos to create lines of embryonic stem cells is over; tout finit; THE END. It was buried with a stake thrust through its heart by a study published in the world’s most prestigious science magazine, Nature. Trust the media:
* “Stem Cells Created With No Harm to Human Embryos” (Washington Post)
* “In New Method for Stem Cells, Viable Embryos” (New York Times)
* “Embryos Spared in Stem Cell Creation” (USA Today)
* “Stem Cell Advance Spares Embryos” (L.A. Times)
On second thought, don’t trust the media.
In fact none of the 16 embryos involved in the study by medical director Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) survived. All were harmed; none were viable; none were spared. When a member of ACT’s research advisory panel, Ronald Green, told the Washington Post, “You can honestly say this cell line is from an embryo that was in no way harmed or destroyed,” he couldn’t have been more dishonest.
For all the media mania, you’d never know the Lanza publication was just a 200-word letter that spent as much verbiage on theory as actually describing the experiment. As such, Nature had no business running it.
But as I’ve written elsewhere, Nature has long boosted embryonic stem cell (ESC) technology generally and the lifting of federal funding restrictions specifically, as has its American counterpart Science. Their eagerness to run anything promoting this view recently led to Science‘s being forced to withdraw not one but two “ESC miracle breakthrough” articles.
Lanza’s team described their work in Nature as showing that a single cell pulled from the smallest human embryos (8-10 cells) can be made to divide in the laboratory a create a full cell line or “colony.” Since fertility doctors often remove a single cell from embryos this age to screen for genetic defects before in vitro fertilization — though it’s still unknown as to whether this will eventually harm the child — researchers could theoretically just use these “spares.”
But Lanza’s team didn’t just pluck one cell from each of the 16 embryos; they ripped them apart and used 4-7 cells.
The ACT researchers’ letter left the embryos’ fate ambiguous, but an accompanying figure showed a photo of a biopsied embryo at a later stage of development — one Lanza’s embryos never reached. A longer Nature press release accompanying the article explicitly stated only one cell was removed and the embryos survived. (It has since been corrected, and Lanza’s letter will be also.) ACT’s press release declared repeatedly that the embryos survived, with CEO William Caldwell IV celebrating “Our ability to create human embryonic cell lines and therapies without harming the embryo…”
Lanza also clearly lied in an audio interview for Nature, saying “in this instance there is no harm to the embryo that we’re biopsying.” So did Caldwell, telling PBS’s NewsHour, “In this case, we do not destroy the embryo” and therefore it was “a major scientific breakthrough.”
Lo! After steadily declining for six months, ACT stock suddenly shot up 500% and both Lanza and Caldwell, already quite wealthy, became quite wealthier. Then just two days after the Nature report, ACT announced it had received commitments to raise about $13.5 million.
But then along came busy-body Richard Doerflinger of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. In a detailed e-mail (later posted online), he showed step-by-step that Lanza did nothing new besides perhaps reaching new heights in scientific dishonesty.
To their credit, many in the media along with other ESC boosters have admitted ACT and Nature took them for a ride. These include Senators Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa., authors of a bill President Bush vetoed this year that would have expanded ESC research funding. Specter, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that holds the health and medical research purse strings, told officials of the company it had not accomplished “what you told the world.” He added, “We have representation which created a lot of hopes…and now they appear to be dashed.”
But ACT propagandist, er, uh, ethicist Ronald Green leapt to the company’s defense. “The approach does not harm embryos; the experiment did,” Green insisted. (Right. And “I didn’t kill the victim;” the shooter said, “the bullets did!”) An utterly unrepentant Lanza tossed off the backlash criticism as merely indicative of how politicized stem cell research has become. Now there’s something he knows about.
Lanza has always been more salesman than scientist, constantly inveighing against the federal funding restrictions that restrict the growth of his bank account. Yet the media treat him as an impartial source on all things stem cell. Welcome to the world of ESC “science” — about 10% research and 90% hype.