News Analysis: False Promises of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Published November 1, 2006

The U.S. media tend to relay uncritically the claim that embryonic stem cell (ESC) research has tremendous promise to treat and cure many health conditions–but “promise” is the key word.

To date, no human being has even received ESCs experimentally, let alone as a successful cure of anything.

That lack of success puts tremendous pressure on ESC researchers and their allies to claim results where none exist, or at least to exaggerate what they have found.

The ESC tale told by Robert Lanza, medical director of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), in the August 23 issue of the journal Nature is a typical and cautionary one.

The thrust of his claim–that ESC research can be done without killing human embryos–captured headlines worldwide. The idea was to create new ESC lines eligible for federal funding, because the ban on federal government money being spent on new ESC lines stems from the belief that as human life, embryos deserve special protection. Avoiding embryo death would theoretically satisfy persons who hold that belief.

But the headlines reporting Lanza’s results were false.

Killing Embryos

In fact, however, none of the 16 embryos involved in Lanza’s study survived. When a member of ACT’s research advisory panel, Ronald Green, told The Washington Post, “You can honestly say this cell line is from an embryo that was in no way harmed or destroyed,” he couldn’t have been more dishonest.

From the media mania, you’d never know the Lanza publication was just a 200-word letter that spent as much verbiage on theory as actually describing the experiment. Nature had no business running it.

But as I’ve written elsewhere, Nature has long boosted ESC technology generally and the lifting of federal funding restrictions specifically, as has its American counterpart, Science. Their eagerness to run anything promoting this view recently led to Science being forced to withdraw not one but two “ESC miracle breakthrough” articles.

Lanza’s team described its work in Nature as showing that a single cell pulled from the smallest human embryos (8-10 cells) can be made to divide in the laboratory to create a full cell line or “colony.” Since fertility doctors often remove a single cell from embryos this age to screen for genetic defects before in vitro fertilization–though it’s still unknown whether this will eventually harm the child–researchers could theoretically use these “spares.”

Increasing Stock

But Lanza’s team didn’t just pluck one cell from each of the 16 embryos; they ripped them apart and used four to seven cells from each.

The ACT researchers’ letter left the embryos’ fate ambiguous, but an accompanying figure showed a photo of a biopsied embryo at a later stage of development–one Lanza’s embryos never reached.

A longer Nature news release accompanying the article explicitly stated only one cell was removed and that all the embryos survived. (By press time for this issue of Health Care News, both the news release and Lanza’s letter had been corrected.) ACT’s news release declared repeatedly that the embryos survived.

Lanza also clearly lied in an audio interview for Nature, saying, “in this instance there is no harm to the embryo that we’re biopsying.” So did ACT CEO William Caldwell IV. “In this case,” he told PBS’s NewsHour, “we did not destroy the embryo.”

Lo! After steadily declining for six months, ACT stock shot up 500 percent–making the already-wealthy Lanza and Caldwell much wealthier. Two days after the Nature report, ACT announced it had received commitments to raise about $13.5 million.

Defrauding the Public

Enter busybody Richard Doerflinger, associate director for policy development at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). In a detailed e-mail later posted on the USCCB Web site, Doerflinger showed step-by-step that Lanza did nothing new–except, perhaps, reaching new heights in scientific dishonesty.

To their credit, many in the media, along with other ESC boosters, have admitted ACT and Nature took them for a ride. U.S. Sens. Arlen Specter ( R-PA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA), authors of a bill President George W. Bush vetoed this year that would have expanded ESC research funding. were among those who admitted they were duped.

Specter, chairman of the Senate subcommittee that holds the health and medical research purse strings, told the ACT it had not accomplished “what you told the world.” He added, “We have representation which created a lot of hopes … and now they appear to be dashed.”

Growing Funds

But ACT ethicist Ronald Green leapt to the company’s defense. “The approach does not harm embryos; the experiment did,” Green insisted. (Right. And “I didn’t kill the victim,” the shooter said; “the bullets did!”) An utterly unrepentant Lanza tossed off the critical backlash as an indication of how politicized stem cell research has become.

Lanza has always been more salesman than scientist, constantly inveighing against the federal funding restrictions that slow the growth of his bank account. Yet the media treat him as an impartial source on all things stem cell–as they do with others who have made millions of dollars by hyping ESCs that, as you recall, have treated not one human being.

Many investors became instant millionaires when California’s ESC research measure, Proposition 71, passed. Not coincidentally, supporters outspent opponents by 62-1. Because the text of the proposition ran to 9,000 words, voters couldn’t possibly read it, and advertising and media coverage made all the difference.

Funding by Government

Meanwhile, adult stem cells (ASCs) are found throughout the human body, as well as in umbilical cords and placental tissue. First discovered in the 1950s at about the same time ESCs were, ASCs now cure or treat 72 diseases.

Bone marrow transplantation, for example, is actually a transplant of stem cells. They can also grow and repair organs, including patches of human skin (now commercialized) and heart muscle and blood vessels (still experimental, but advanced.) ASCs currently are being tested in more than 1,000 human clinical trials.

Because ASC medicine is so advanced, it attracts venture capital. Because ESC research is so speculative, with potential payoff horizons at least 10 years down the road, when it attracts venture capital at all it is probably not because of the research’s merits but the hope of a sudden surge in federal or state funds. The ACT opened an office in California to take advantage of Proposition 71 funding.

Few areas of scientific inquiry are immune from fraud, but even fewer lend themselves to it as much as ESC research. Lanza’s publicity effort is only one example, but it’s enough to put us all on our guard.

Michael Fumento ([email protected]) specializes in science and health issues.

For more information …

“Stem cell advance: Embryos not hurt,” by Rick Weiss, Washington Post, August 23, 2006,

“In New Method for Stem Cells, Viable Embryos,” by Nicholas Wade, The New York Times, August 24, 2006,

“Embryos spared in stem cell creation,” by Dan Vergano, USA Today, August 23, 2006,

“Stem Cell Advance Spares Embryos,” by Karen Kaplan, Los Angeles Times, August 24, 2006,,0,43938.story?coll=la-headlines-politics

“Human embryonic stem cell lines derived from single blastomeres” (letter), Nature, August 23, 2006,

“Early embryos can yield stem cells … and survive,” by Helen Pearson, Nature, August 24, 2006,