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Fake it Til You Make it

Genetic Crossroads
September 14th, 2006

ACT's Michael West
ACT's Michael West

Advanced Cell Technology is a small biotech company with a knack for generating media headlines, which in turn, generate controversy, money from investors and stock spikes, but little in the way of real scientific advance. Last month, ACT—now a publicly traded company—did it again.

ACT's late August announcement claiming that it had established embryonic stem cell lines without destroying an embryo made front-page headlines around the world. No lesser authorities than the editorial pages of both the New York Times and the Washington Post argued that this development should silence any reasonable pro-life opposition to embryonic stem cell research.

Moving beyond the polarizing embryo-centered debate in stem cell research would be a welcome step. But the announcement turned out to be an exaggeration whose main effect was apparently securing the millions of dollars that the company urgently needed.

NBC's chief science reporter, Robert Bazell, noted that "In the world of biotechnology, hype and hyperbole are the norms…. So headlines, even if the claims prove groundless, can push up the stock price long enough—or nudge deals forward—to keep the company on life support…. But even in this smelly landscape Advanced Cell Technology stands out."

The company, which recently opened a facility in California in order to be eligible for funds allocated by the state's 2004 stem cell initiative, announced that it had derived stem cell lines by removing single cells from several days-old embryos which had been created by in vitro fertilization. Deriving stem cells normally requires many cells from an embryo, and consequently its destruction.

In its press release, ACT said explicity that its researchers had "successfully generated human embryonic stem cells using an approach that does not harm embryos…. We have demonstrated, for the first time, that human embryonic stem cells can be generated without interfering with the embryo's potential for life."

Soon contrary details began to leak out, based on the close reading of the scientific report by critics. Nature, the journal that published the results, issued a statement, clarifying that all sixteen embryos used were, in fact, destroyed in the process.

The corrections got some attention—though much less than the initial claims. In the meantime, ACT's stock value, which had quadrupled after its original announcement, settled back to merely twice its initial value.

The company's bioethics advisor, Ronald Green of Dartmouth University, began to retrace his steps. He had initially said, "You can honestly say this cell line is from an embryo that was in no way harmed or destroyed." As the controversy began, he argued, "[T]he degree of protest here is the result of the importance of this breakthrough." Green then conceded that "the approach does not harm embryos; the experiment did." Finally, Green asserted that his earliest statements were misquoted.

Before long, ACT, whose president Michael West promotes immortality as a foreseeable scientific goal of regenerative medicine, was being reprimanded by embryonic stem cell research advocates. Bioethicist Glenn McGee advised his colleague Green, "It's time to stop blessing these guys with ethics PR. Please, Ron, give it up before ACT becomes the undoing of embryonic stem cell research." Even US Senators Arlen Specter and Tom Harkin admonished the company's lead researcher in a hearing.

This is not the first time that ACT has claimed high-profile results that later turn out to be hollow. It has never had much of a product line and instead relies on its hyped "developments" for infusions of capital to keep it out of bankruptcy.

bullet Back in 1998, it claimed to have derived human embryonic stem cells by merging a human body cell with a cow's egg. Although the company managed to milk the resulting publicity (and, presumably, investors) for months, no stem cells were ever actually isolated.

bullet Five years ago its scientists claimed to have successfully made human embryos by cloning. It released its results simultaneously in a new, obscure online scientific journal and to the popular magazine Scientific American for a front-page exclusive. But it was soon revealed that the clonal embryos only made it to the stage of a few cells.

bullet In the same year, ACT announced that it had cloned an endangered relative of the ox. But the animal, a guar, had died soon after birth. Even Glenn McGee, who seldom meets a technology he doesn't like, was so appalled by the company's use of the media that he felt compelled to quit its Ethics Advisory Board.

What's been little remarked upon, however, is that this pattern of hyperbole has come to characterize both the field of stem cell research and the political debate about it. Miracle cures for myriad diseases are promised by proponents of work with embryonic stem cells. Early-stage research and even speculative applications of hypothetical research are promoted to garner public support and venture capital. Researchers in white lab coats pitching the potential of embryonic stem cells are identified only as research scientists, when in fact they are often also the financial beneficiaries of biotech corporations. Meanwhile, reasonable and minimal regulations are criticized as thwarting scientific progress.

Given this climate of exaggerated expectations, it shouldn't be that surprising that desperate companies and delusional researchers regularly come along, and take advantage of the public's hopes and misperceptions in order to boost their stock prices or careers.

In this case, the weak link was the media, on whom the public relies for accurate and critical reporting. Instead of reading the scientific paper closely—which would have revealed that the embryos were destroyed—most reporters took the press releases issued by ACT and Nature at face value. Given ACT's sketchy history of swindling, seasoned journalists should have known better.

Related Articles:

bullet "Stem cell company's reputation battered," News Wires (September 9)

bullet Opinion: Wesley J. Smith, "Science by Press Release: More hype from stem cell entrepreneurs," The Weekly Standard (September 4)

bullet Letter-to-the-editor: Osagie Obasogie, "Ethical concerns over stem cell research," Los Angeles Times (August 29)

bullet Opinion: Robert Bazell, "Slippery slope: Inflated science claims equal $$," MSNBC (August 29)

bullet "Why the Stem Cell Advance May Not Be a Breakthrough," Time Magazine (August 24)

bullet Opinion: Arthur Caplan, "Stem cell 'breakthrough' more hype than hope: New technique raises more ethical questions than real answers," MSNBC (August 24)

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