|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.
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.
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."
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."
details began to leak out, based on the close reading of the scientific
report by critics. Nature, the journal that published the
a statement, clarifying that all sixteen embryos used were,
in fact, destroyed in the process.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
cell company's reputation battered," News Wires
Opinion: Wesley J. Smith, "Science
by Press Release: More hype from stem cell entrepreneurs,"
The Weekly Standard (September 4)
Letter-to-the-editor: Osagie Obasogie, "Ethical
concerns over stem cell research," Los Angeles Times
Opinion: Robert Bazell, "Slippery
slope: Inflated science claims equal $$," MSNBC
the Stem Cell Advance May Not Be a Breakthrough," Time
Magazine (August 24)
Opinion: Arthur Caplan, "Stem
cell 'breakthrough' more hype than hope: New technique raises more
ethical questions than real answers," MSNBC (August