Why adult–stem–cell–research successes get downplayed by the media.

Wesley J. Smith
Permission Granted

"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.245). 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 underplayed.

The New York Times story written by Nicholas Wade with Sheryl Gay Stolberg ran deep inside the paper (page A14), 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 experiments.

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 other reportage.

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 culture is.

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 evidence.

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.