23 Apr Researchers say scientific reporting needs more perspective, less hype
Fitchburg – A scientist who was involved in the cloning of Dolly the sheep said Thursday there often is a lack of perspective in media coverage of embryonic stem cell research, which could be raising the public’s expectations that medical breakthroughs are just around the corner when they are at least a few years away.
Alan Colman, CEO of ES Cell International, said news of the possibilities of human embryonic stem cell research should be combined with the sobering perspective of where the scientific community stands and how far it still has to go. “The mantra that stem cell research is the wave of the future has created great expectations that, if not realized in a few years, like gene therapy, people could get disenchanted,” said Colman, the leadoff speaker at the fifth annual International Bioethics Forum, held this week in Fitchburg.
At ESI, Colman is helping to develop embryonic stem cell based therapies for the treatment of diabetes and congestive heart failure. Unlike other presenters at the bioethics forum, Colman does not believe the possibilities of stem cell research are over hyped, but he did admit that news accounts of the latest finding can get the public aroused and excited. Part of the problem, he acknowledged, lies within the scientific community. He said there are too many premature results leaked to the press, and one motivation is the need to raise money for their research.
The dangers of hyping stem cell news were illustrated last year when the stem cell advance reported by a South Korean scientist was exposed as fraudulent. Forum moderator Arthur Derse, director of medical and legal affairs at the Medical College of Wisconsin, called that episode more of a public relations setback than a science setback because other responsible scientists are moving in the same direction.
Derse, however, took issue with a recent magazine report that suggested human cloning is “closer than we think,” when in fact there is a federal ban in the United States.
During his presentation, Colman explained the trouble the media can cause researchers. He recounted that a doctored picture of Dolly, the first cloned sheep, appeared on the cover of Nature magazine, leading to charges of fraud. He said even though cloning has succeeded in nine different species, it is a very inefficient procedure. A lot of cloned animals suffer from abnormalities, and the average efficiency of cloning animals is about 2 percent. “The miracle is that cloning works at all,” he noted.
Timothy Caulfield, research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta in Canada, said there is strong public support for innovation and growing support for human embryonic stem cell research. While he is confident that such research will someday produce scientifically and medically beneficial techniques and treatments, he acknowledges the media hype. “There has been a lot of hype, but we’re not going to see a therapy in three years or in five years,” said Caulfield, who spoke on the controversies surrounding scientific patents. “It’s going to take a long time.”
Tenneille Ludwig, a Ph.D., is leading the culture optimization program for human and nonhuman embryonic stem cells in the laboratory of University of Wisconsin-Madison stem cell researcher James Thomson. After describing some painstaking work being done to prepare human embryonic stem cells for clinical applications, and potential stem cell enabled treatments like biological pacemakers to control heart rhythm, she also expressed discomfort with hype that gives the impression that discoveries will “happen tomorrow.”
“There is so much real potential, but it will take awhile,” she said. “This is the kind of thing that will happen decades from now, rather than weeks from now.”
The bioethics forum, held at the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute, explored a range of ethical issues in scientific research, including the use of chimeras, which are organisms or organs that consist of cells from more than one species, plus clones and embryonic stem cells. While each has been controversial, opposition to the latter may be softening.
Justine Burley, adjunct associate professor at the Graduate School for the Integrative Sciences and Engineering at National University in Singapore, said much of the world’s population accepts embryonic stem cell research, but large pockets of resistance remain in the United States and Latin America. She said moral opposition to destroying an embryo for scientific research is likely to fade after the first significant medical discovery. “If there is an embryonic stem cell breakthrough that serves a critical medical need, what will be the reaction?” she asked.
She cited the example of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a case where society may come to a reasonable accommodation. A Jehovah’s Witness can refuse a blood transfusion on religious grounds, and the medical community respects that belief. The same respect for individual beliefs can be applied to medical discoveries from embryonic stem cells.
Clive Svendsen, a professor of anatomy and neurology at UW-Madison, believes that Burley’s analogy is sound. “I think America is a very pragmatic country,” he said. “I hope the nation is moving toward a policy where scientists can proceed with research but people have the right to refuse treatment if they are opposed to the research.”