Science Sham and Embryo Hype

Last week all the world’s media was abuzz with reports of a new stem cell extraction method which purportedly leaves the embryo alive. I penned a summary of the news and various concerns about it last week for this website. Well, it turns out that things are much worse than first reported.

Indeed, the claims made by Dr Lanza and his team turn out to be false. One leading authority on these matters is Dr Richard Doerflinger from the US. He has followed these developments closely, and admits that even he was somewhat taken in by the claims made last week. But with the revelation that these claims were mainly bogus, Doerflinger has issued several media releases to correct the picture.

Because his comments do not seem to be on the web as yet, I print them below in full.


Late yesterday, when I determined that all early reports about the Lanza study were false, I did a new press release reflecting the facts as we now know them (inserted at bottom of message).

Some of you received my earlier e-mailed comments. Those comments were based on the assumption that the initial news releases were true – that Lanza et al. had actually managed to get an embryonic stem cell line by picking one cell off an early embryo. Since this claim turns out to be false, my new release presents a more complete picture, and of course my moral argument against the enterprise is more simple and straightforward. Not only did the effort destroy all the embryos, but the study gave us every reason to expect that further efforts of this kind will destroy many more embryos.

Last night on the Lehrer Newshour, Dr. Lanza tried to recoup some reputation by claiming that in an earlier stage of the experiment he had managed to get one cell from early embryos without killing them. But even if this unpublished claim is true, it remains true that he never got a cell line this way. We’ve known for 16 years that embryos can sometimes survive having one cell picked off, so that was not news. The only way he got a cell line was to completely dismember the embryos, and then “co-culture” several cells from each embryo in close proximity to each other so they would still have the cell-to-cell interactions that ultimately lead to pluripotency in the living embryo. This experiment, far from presenting any evidence for the ability of single isolated blastomeres to produce a cell line, actually presents reasons why it may not be possible.

Here’s the supplemental table now posted online by Nature, to show how many cells they took from each embryo in the process of destroying it:

So I’m afraid the following headlines from this week are false and need to be retracted:

“Stem Cells Created With No Harm to Human Embryos” (Washington Post)

“In New Method for Stem Cells, Viable Embryos” (New York Times)

“Embryos spared in stem cell creation” (USA Today)

“Stem Cell Advance Spares Embryos” (L.A. Times)

They are false because the only way ACT ever got any cell lines was to completely dismantle the embryo. Originally I thought they just threw the embryos away AFTER they got their one cell, but the misrepresentation was far more serious. “Figure 1” in the article, showing an embryo surviving to “hatch” as a blastocyst, was apparently NOT one of the embryos from which stem cells were obtained (shades of Dr. Hwang’s photo-switching hoax).

Interestingly the Wall Street Journal headline – “Study Indicates Embryos Survive Cell Extraction” – was technically true, as long as one realizes that this means nothing about the ability to get stem cells (and hence is a headline that is 16 years old). And the headline the Cincinnati Post gave to the AP story – “Firm: Stem cells possible without hurting embryos” sort of survives, because it only says this is POSSIBLE (which strictly speaking hasn’t been disproved) and it attributes the claim to the firm, which certainly has been making that (as yet groundless) claim.

Don’t feel too bad – they fooled me too to some extent, at first. And I should have known better, being familiar with ACT’s tendency to make – let’s see, how to put this charitably? – “premature” claims of success in the past.

Ah well, another week, another false claim by human cloning supporters. Business as usual.

– Richard Doerflinger
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Department of Communications

DATE: August 24, 2006


WASHINGTON – Reacting to a new report in the journal Nature, claiming to show an “ethical” way to obtain stem cells from human embryos, an official of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says this study has been misrepresented in early news reports. “This experiment left no embryos alive, and solves no ethical problem,” says Richard M. Doerflinger, Deputy Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Mr. Doerflinger’s statement follows:

“Initial news reports have misrepresented a study published August 23 in the online version of the journal Nature. The study, conducted by researchers at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts, has been described as showing that a single cell can be obtained from an 8- to 10-celled embryo, and used to create an embryonic stem cell line without harming the original embryo. Some even speak of each child receiving his or her own “repair kit” of stem cells upon birth.

“The reality is very different. Researchers did not safely remove single cells from early embryos, but destroyed 16 embryos in a desperate effort to obtain an average of six cells from each one. This experiment left no embryos alive, and solves no ethical problem. From the resulting 91 cells, they still only managed to make two cell lines. Their study shows nothing about the safety of removing only one cell, which in fact is something they never did – partly because their own earlier experiment in mice indicated that “co-culturing” several cells together might be needed to develop a cell line.

“Even if the authors had shown that single cells obtained by “embryo biopsy” could produce a cell line, serious ethical problems would remain. When this procedure is used to do genetic testing of embryos in fertility clinics, some embryos apparently do not survive the procedure, and the long-term risks for children later born alive are unknown.

“Moreover, any embryo found to have a genetic defect is thrown away – the test is done precisely to determine which embryos do not deserve a chance to live. The promise of a “repair kit” later in life rings hollow if the very children who could most benefit from a stem cell treatment will be thrown away.

“As our fellow human beings, embryonic humans should not be manipulated, harmed or used solely for possible benefit to others, even if this would not always kill them. In any event, further efforts to find a “safe” way to take cells from these embryos would surely require more experiments like this one that are clearly destructive and unethical.

“A better path, already endorsed by President Bush and an impressive bipartisan majority of Congress, is to fund avenues for discovering or creating cells with the abilities of embryonic stem cells without exploiting human embryos at all. The Catholic bishops’ conference has supported this effort and looks forward to advances that are both scientifically and ethically sound.”

[1246 words]

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