Why Nicholas Wade Didn't Cover the Amniotic Stem Cell Study, And How He Sees "Wild Overpromise" on Both Sides of the Debate

In the days before the House vote to fund embryonic stem cell research, the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times ran page one stories heralding a Nature Biotech study that indicated stem cells extracted from amniotic fluid might have "near pluripotent" like properties. Yet, despite the heavy attention from its competitive rivals, the New York Times was silent on the study. (For a full roundup.)

Not soon after the front page headlines appeared, as I predicted, the White House and various anti-abortion groups jumped on the study to claimed that it offered an important "middle way." Given the promise of adult sources, argued opponents, funding for additional embryonic stem cell lines was not needed

The absence of attention at the Times was the subject of a question posed to Science editor Laura Chang by Byron Calume, the paper's Public Editor. In her response, Chang notes that she deferred to the news judgment of veteran reporter Nicholas Wade, who felt that the study was not nearly as significant scientifically as the front page status at the WPost and LATimes might lead readers to believe.

Meanwhile, Wade's later coverage of the House debate and the successful passage of the stem cell bill included his interpretation that "leading scientists were skeptical" of the much heralded amniotic study. As he writes:

Opponents of the measure, and a White House report issued on Wednesday, made much of the idea that alternatives to embryonic stem cells were close at hand. Several House members on Thursday cited a report published last week by Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine that said embryoniclike stem cells could be obtained from amniotic fluid. But scientific literature is several stages removed from accepted truth. It is more like an arena in which most novel claims are shot down by fellow scientists, making it rash to bet on the longevity of any new claim. Dr. Atala reported that amniotic stem cells could generate six kinds of mature cells, implying they were versatile enough to substitute for embryonic stem cells. But leading scientists were skeptical. "The evidence that they can make neurons is extremely poor," said Dr. Arnold Kriegstein of the University of California, San Francisco, an expert on neural stem cells. John Gearhart, an embryonic stem cell specialist at Johns Hopkins University, said that the amniotic cells were "certainly not in the category of embryonic stem cells."

Yet in reference to stem cell supporters, Wade echoed the warnings I first offered here at Framing Science and in my Skeptical Inquirer Online column. Headlined "Concerns of Dashed Hopes from Promised Miracles," Wade writes:

The striking hopes that stem cell advocates have raised in order to overturn Mr. Bush's decision may generate public disenchantment with such research if its promise is not quickly fulfilled. "In those places like California where the public has been sold the Golden Gate Bridge for stem cell research and it doesn't pay off, there might be some difficulty," said Dr. Leon Kass, former chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics. Even scientists who believe that the restrictions on embryonic stem cell research have been harmful are concerned about the overstatements. "We don't know yet how valuable this technology is going to be," said Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. "All of a sudden, the content increases in value just because you can't have it," Dr. Cech said.

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