"Puff piece" is a term for a piece of journalism that is a simplistic, gratuitous hagiography to a public figure. These are expected during an election year by reporters currying favor or publications that take readers' minds off the "real world." But an article in the latest issue of Discover on Robert Lanza, vice president for research at the struggling stem cell company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), sets a new standard.
Essentially pretending that the last seven years have not occurred, author Pamela Weintraub breathlessly portrays Lanza as a genius misfit who bravely bucks rigid authority and has been a pioneer in cloning-based stem cell research, an exciting field with great potential. And, according to the interview, titled "Fighting for the Right to Clone," he would have made even more progress, if it weren't for those meddling federal authorities.
Whether defying the dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine so he could publish a book on world health or challenging the titans of cosmology, Robert Lanza has never followed the script. It’s no wonder, then, that this renegade doctor would lead the charge into medicine’s most controversial turf: the creation of cloned embryos for therapy and the engineering of spare human parts.
The value of therapeutic cloning has long been clear to Lanza...
Lanza’s single-minded quest to usher in this new age has paid dividends in scientific insights and groundbreaking discoveries. Today a world force in the field of regenerative medicine, he’s close to delivering cellular therapies that might reseed the immune system, heal damaged hearts, even save limbs. Yet for almost 20 years government policy has kept his innovations literally on ice. He has been called a murderer for tampering with embryos, and personal threats were so common at one point that he believed he would be killed....
In a 2001 article, U.S. News & World Report called Lanza the “living embodiment” of the fictional genius in the movie Good Will Hunting, whose Massachusetts accent is as thick as Lanza’s own.
The introduction above (emphasis added) is followed by a relentless stream of softball "questions" such as, "This seems like lifesaving technology on an unprecedented scale, yet the work has been stymied by politics. It must be frustrating to have these cells sitting around the lab, in storage, when you could be helping people," and "You’re launching the future of medicine, but it is still on hold."
But even setting aside the the fluff and softballs, Weintraub misrepresents both cloning-based stem cell research and ACT. The field has had very little progress - and what has occurred has not been the work of Lanza or ACT. And the company, currently on the brink of closing shop due to lack of funds, has regularly been roundly criticized of excessive hype and science-by-press-release, even by supporters of stem cell research such as Sen. Arlen Spector.
The cited 2001 article in US News and World Report is perhaps the epitome of these exaggerations. In it, the company claimed - without the benefit of a peer-reviewed article* - to have created the first human clonal embryos. This was quickly debunked, and it wasn't until this year that such a feat was accomplished by a competing firm.
Regardless of this recent development, cloning-based stem cell research looks less and less relevant not due to overbearing government policies but because of extremely limited scientific progress progress, the large number of fresh human eggs required, and the derivation of patient- and disease-specific stem cell lines using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS).
*Update (January 6, 2009): I thank the commenter below for refreshing my memory. The results of the experiment were released in e-biomed, an obscure online academic journal edited by a friend of ACT's CEO, and whose editorial board included two coauthors of the paper in question. The publication of the articles in the journal and in US News and World Report were arranged to coincide. A small scandal endued, and three members of e-biomed's editorial board resigned, one of whom said the "paper was of little or no scientific value" and that "[We] would have counselled against publication." The electronic journal has since ceased publication
For subsequent debates, see articles in the New York Times, Science, and Scientific American, BBC News, The Independent, and Nature Biotechnology.