For years, the media touted the promise of embryonic stem cells. Year after year, Geron Corporation announced that its embryonic stem cell treatment for acute spinal cord injury would receive FDA approval “next year” for human testing. And year after year, the media dutifully informed readers and viewers that cures were imminent. When the FDA finally did approve a tiny human trial for 10 patients in January 2009, the news exploded around the world. This was it: The era of embryonic stem cell therapy had arrived!
Not exactly. Last week, Geron issued a terse statement announcing it was not only canceling the study, but abandoning the embryonic stem cell field altogether for financial reasons.
You would think Geron’s failure would be very big news. Instead, it turns out that the mainstream media pay attention only when embryonic stem cell research seems to be succeeding — so far, almost exclusively in animal studies. When, as here, it crashes and burns, it is scarcely news at all.
Indeed, with the laudable exception of the Washington Post—which outshines its competitors in reporting on biotechnology, as when it debunked the widely reported and groundless assertion that embryonic stem cell research could have cured Ronald Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease—most of the same news outlets that gave Geron star treatment when it was heralding supposed breakthroughs provided only muted coverage of the company’s retreat into producing anti-cancer drugs.
The Los Angeles Times may be the most egregious offender. A chronic booster of Geron’s embryonic stem cell research, it reported the FDA’s approval of a human trial on January 24, 2009, in a story that began, “Ushering in a new era in medicine…” The paper stayed on the story. In October 2010, it reported that the first patient had received an injection, then a few days later it ran a feature about the study under the headline “Hope for Spinal Cord Patients.” During the same period, however, the paper did not report the encouraging results of early human trials of treatments for spinal cord injury developed using adult stem cells.
Then last May, the Times celebrated the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine’s $25 million loan to support Geron’s study, noting that the company’s stem cell product had performed as hoped in rat -studies. Yet the day after Geron’s embryonic stem cell research unit was laid off, the Times couldn’t find the space to print the story, though the following day a blog entry ran on the Times website.
Similarly, the San Francisco Chronicle, which had given front-page exposure to a local company when Geron’s trial got underway, reported the failure of that trial in a small report on the back page of the business section. The New York Times, always quick to applaud embryonic stem cell research, placed a small story at the bottom of page two of the business section. Other outlets carried muted reports, many focusing either on the business consequences for Geron and its stock price, or on the two other human embryonic stem cell trials currently underway, for eye conditions, run by Advanced Cell Technology.
No one should be surprised by the double standard. The media have always been in the tank for embryonic stem cell research, often breathlessly reporting hype and spin from company PR spokesmen as if it were hard news. This approach sprang largely from the media’s antipathy for the pro-life movement, the most prominent opponent of research requiring the destruction of human embryos. Then there was the anti-George W. Bush prism through which science journalists and other reporters usually analyzed the issue. For nearly Bush’s entire presidency, the media used people’s yearning for cures as a hammer to pound the president for his decision to limit federal research funding to projects using stem cell lines already in existence and therefore not requiring the new destruction of human embryos. Rarely noted in all the criticism: During the Bush years, the NIH spent more than $600 million on human embryonic stem cell research.
Making matters worse, even though Bush is off the national stage, most media continue to ignore the parade of advances demonstrated in human trials of treatments relying on adult stem cells. On the very day that Geron packed its bags, for instance, the news broke of a hopeful adult stem cell treatment for heart disease. It was a big story in the United Kingdom: The headline in the Telegraph called it the “Biggest Breakthrough in Treating Heart Attacks for a Generation.” The story noted:
In the trial, cardiac stem cells were used to repair the severely damaged hearts of 16 patients. It was the first time this had ever been done in humans. After one year, the ejection fraction or “pumping efficiency” of the hearts of eight patients had improved by more than 12 percent. All patients whose progress was followed underwent some level of recovery… Although this was an early stage trial and larger studies are needed, scientists believe the promise it shows has huge implications.
How did the New York Times report this story? It didn’t. The L.A. Times? A blog entry. USA Today? Nada. San Francisco Chronicle? At least it was in the paper—on page A16, under the hardly descriptive headline “Regimen Shown To Aid Heart Patients.” And so it goes.
Imagine if a human trial using embryonic stem cells had shown improvement to damaged human hearts. You can just see the banner headline in the New York Times and the breathless announcements on the network news. The thought experiment makes blatantly obvious the malpractice that plagues reporting in this field—which is doubly regrettable, since not only are editors and reporters undermining the media’s already tarnished reputation for objectivity, but many suffering people and their families still have not heard the hopeful news generated by the ethical exploration of regenerative medicine.
Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism, a legal consultant for the Patients Rights Council, and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.