BioSpin — Why Adult Stem Cell Research Successes Get Downplayed by the
WESLEY J. SMITH
"Adult-Stem-Cell Breakthrough!" the headlines should have screamed.
"Stunning Discovery Could Mean No Need to Use Embryos in Research."
Unfortunately, with the notable exception of a front-page story in the
Boston Globe, the mainstream media has significantly downplayed
this potentially exciting scientific discovery.
Here's the scoop: As originally reported late last year in the medical
journal Blood, Dr. Catherine M. Verfaillie and other researchers
at the Stem Cell Institute, University of Minnesota, have discovered a
way to coax an adult cell found in the bone marrow to exhibit many of
the attributes that supposedly make embryonic stem cells irreplaceable
to the development future "miracle" medical therapies. While there is
still much research to be done, "multi-potent adult progenitor cells" (MAPCs)
appear to be versatile, that is, capable of transforming into different
types of tissues. (In a culture dish, the cells can be coaxed into
becoming muscle, cartilage, bone, liver, or different types of neurons
in the brain.) They are also malleable, meaning they can do so
relatively easily. They also exhibit the "immortality" valued in
embryonic cells, that is to say, they seem capable of being transformed
into cell lines that can be maintained indefinitely. At the same time,
these adult cells do not appear to present the acute danger associated
with embryonic stem cells: the tendency to grow uncontrollably causing
tumors or even cancers.
This should be a big story considering the intense controversy over
embryonic-stem-cell research (ESCR) and the coming attempt in the United
States Senate to outlaw human cloning (S.790). Indeed, The New York
Times and Washington Post consider embryonic-stem-cell
research so important — including the manufacture and use of human-clone
embryos in such experiments — that both have repeatedly editorialized in
favor of turning the throttle full-speed ahead on this immoral endeavor.
Yet, when the potentially crucial discovery of an adult cell that could
make embryonic destruction and therapeutic cloning unnecessary comes to
light — and just at the time when the United States Senate is about to
argue whether to outlaw the cloning of human embryos — other than the
splendid Boston Globe article, the story has been significantly
The New York Times story written by Nicholas Wade with Sheryl Gay
Stolberg ran deep inside the paper (page A-14), under the headline,
"Scientists Herald a Versatile Adult Cell." While the Times
headline and reporting focused upon the actual story, it failed to
provide many of the significant details found in the Boston Globe
reporting, and as a result, the story lost much of its punch.
The Washington Post smothered the importance of the story
altogether in a story bylined by Rick Weiss that ran on page A-8.
Headlined, "In Senate, Findings Intensify Arguments on Human Cloning,"
the actual discovery itself is barely described. The first mention of it
comes in the fourth paragraph, which focuses primarily on a statement by
Verfaillie downplaying her own discovery so as not to interfere with the
pro-cloning and ESCR research agenda. Indeed, the primary thrust of the
Post reportage focuses on the reasons why this discovery should
not deter destructive embryonic research.
The story was also covered by relative brief wire-service reports and in
a much better story in New Scientist magazine. In any event, with
such muffled coverage, it is unlikely that news of the breakthrough will
receive the concentrated television coverage essential to a story
reaching critical mass. As a consequence, most Americans will probably
never hear about it or understand its potential importance.
This isn't the first time that major breakthroughs in adult-stem-cell
research have received under-whelming coverage. Indeed, a discernable
pattern has developed in the mainstream press regarding these issues.
Scientific breakthroughs involving embryonic cells generally receive the
full-brass-band treatment, with front-page coverage that often leaps to
the all-important television news. Meanwhile, you can usually hear the
crickets chirping when scientists announce a breakthrough in
adult-stem-cell research, or, as in the Post story, the reportage
places more emphasis on why the breakthrough should not deter
destructive embryonic research than on the actual adult-cell
There are many examples of this phenomenon. Here are just a few:
On July 19, 2001, the Harvard University Gazette reported that
mice with Type 1 diabetes (an autoimmune disorder) were completely cured
of their disease using adult stem cells. This was accomplished by
destroying the cells responsible for the diabetes, at which point, the
animals' own adult stem cells regenerated the missing cells with healthy
tissue. Dr. Denise Faustman told the Gazette, that if the therapy
works out in humans "we should be able to replace damaged organs and
tissues by using adult stem cells, thus eliminating, at least
temporarily, the need to harvest and transplant stem cells from embryos
and fetuses." If this accomplishment — a compete cure of a devastating
disease — had been obtained using embryonic cells, the headlines would
have matched those seen on V-J-Day. But I know of no general media,
either press or electronic, which reported the story.
On June 15, 2001, the Globe and Mail (Canada) reported a
wonderful story that could provide great hope to people with spinal
injuries. Israeli doctors injected paraplegic Melissa Holley, age 18,
who became disabled when her spinal cord was severed in an auto
accident. After researchers injected her with her own white blood cells,
she regained the ability to move her toes and control her bladder. This
is the exact kind of therapy that embryonic-stem-cell boosters only hope
they can begin to achieve in ten years. Yet, is has been accomplished in
the here and now, and other than the Globe story, I know of no
In December 2001, Tissue Engineering, a peer-reviewed journal,
reported that researchers believe they will be able to use stem cells
found in fat to rebuild bone. The researchers are about to enter
extensive animal studies. If these pan out, people with osteoporosis and
other degenerative bone conditions could benefit significantly. Yet,
other than appearing on an online health newswire, I have seen nothing
about it from the mainstream press.
All of this begs an intriguing question: Why is there so much less
interest in adult/alternative-stem-cell-research successes stories among
the media than they exhibit toward embryonic advances? After all, "the
science," were all that mattered, the visibility and coverage of stories
like those related above would at least equal the attention given to
ESCR stories. And therein lies the rub. I don't think that science is
the primary issue driving the extent and depth of news coverage. Media
It is no secret that most members of the media are
politically liberal and adherents to a rational materialist worldview.
They are also (generally) emotionally pro-choice on abortion. Because
the cloning/ESCR issues force us to dwell on whether unborn human life
has intrinsic value simply because it is human, the issue tends to be
viewed by journalists through a distorting abortion prism.
This is very unfortunate. Abortion is factually irrelevant to this
debate: The legal reason abortion is permitted is to prevent women from
being forced to do with their bodies that which they do not wish to do,
e.g. gestate and give birth. But in cloning and ESCR, no woman is being
forced to do anything with her body. That is one reason why people on
both sides of the abortion divide oppose ESCR and human cloning. For
example, Judy Norsegian (author of the feminist tome Our Bodies
Ourselves) and the liberal public-policy advocate Jeremy Rifkin both
oppose therapeutic and reproductive cloning.
But that fact hasn't sunk in. And so the news sources the media uses to
present the case against cloning/ESCR are usually people they can damn
(in their eyes) with the label, "opponent of abortion." Thus, it appears
that the same dynamics that lead The New York Times and other
media outlets to refuse to use the term "partial birth abortion" when
covering that issue, are at play in editorial decisions about how to
report upon this one.
I think another part of the explanation for the shallow coverage of
adult-stem-cell research is the media's obsession with "credentials."
When scientists say that embryonic stem cells offer far greater hope for
future medical therapies than do adult cells, journalists take one look
at their curricula vitae and believe them wholeheartedly. Never mind
that these biotech spokespersons may be as ideologically driven to their
opinions in favor of research as the "usual suspects" in the pro-life
movement are to theirs opposing it. And never mind that the incomes of
some of these scientists may depend on continued funding for ESCR and/or
cloning. And never mind that events have disproved their repeated
assertions that future cell therapies cannot be derived in any way other
than through embryonic sources. And never mind that President Clinton's
National Bioethics Advisory Commission, which first urged the government
to fund ESCR, stated that such experiments are "justifiable only if no
less morally problematic alternatives are available for advancing the
research" — a state of affairs we have surely now reached. And forget
that Big Biotech has the same profit-driven agenda as other industries
that are viewed so skeptically by the media such as Big Tobacco and Big
Oil. The multiple university degrees and rational materialistic
credentials make what the biotech researchers say more "true" then
whatever cloning/ESCR opponents may argue — regardless of the actual
Finally, clout in public-policy disputes usually boils down to money.
Quite often, reporters don't find stories; stories find reporters. That
is how PR firms make the big bucks; being paid quite handsomely to alert
journalists to stories their clients' want covered. In this fight, Big
Biotech's very deep pockets almost guarantee coverage that is skewed in
favor of destroying embryos in experiments and permitting the creation
of human-research clones. Or to paraphrase an old saying, he or she who
has the gold gets to spin the story.
Wesley J. Smith. "BioSpin — Why Adult Stem Cell Research Successes
Get Downplayed by the Media." National ReviewMagazine
(January 28, 2001).
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