Mixed Media Signals on Stem Cell Research

Earlier this month, advancements in stem cell research were widely covered by the media, as was the range of reactions to the successful production of embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos.

Such cells are essential, basic components of human biology that can be cultivated into more specialized tissue-skin, blood, bone, etc.

Some people hailed the new research as a critical step toward treating intractable diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; other people expressed concern-even horror-that the technology could be perverted to create wholly cloned human beings.

Gary Schwitzer, creator of HealthReviewNews.org, examined another side of the stem cell conversation-how even respected members of the media can draw opposite conclusions to a rigorous scientific endeavor.

Fox News, for example, offered a “just the science” lead:

In a major medical breakthrough, researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center (ONPRC) have for the first time ever successfully converted human skin cells into embryonic stem cells – via a technique called nuclear transfer.
The research has major implications for the future of medical treatments, as many believe embryonic stem cells are the key to treating damaged cells lost through injury or illness. According to various medical researchers, stem cell therapy has the potential to treat anything from heart disease and spinal cord injuries to major neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

But the New York Times went with a more breathless lead:

Scientists have finally succeeded in using cloning to create human embryonic stem cells, a step toward developing replacement tissue to treat diseases but one that might also hasten the day when it will be possible to create cloned babies.

USA Today and the Los Angeles Times made it front-page explanatory journalism.

And the Boston Globe and Washington Post shrugged their shoulders, The Globe calling the feat “a minor advance … generating little excitement. It is a key technical advance, but not a breakthrough,” and The Post saying that “few experts think that production of stem cells through cloning is likely to be medically useful soon, or possibly ever.”

Are we all living on the same planet?

What does it say about our ability to collect, analyze and communicate to the public information of scientific and social import when leading news-gathering organizations not only aren’t on the same page, they don’t seem to be reading the same book?

Since 1996, when Dolly the sheep was the first mammal successfully cloned from an adult cell, stem cell research has held exciting possibilities. The donor cell that created Dolly was taken from a mammary gland, proving that a cell harvested from a specific part of the body could recreate a complete individual. In human application, the hope is that implanting adult stem cells can replace damaged tissue to treat disease or injury.

Cultivating, managing and applying such potentially rewarding technology while acknowledging and addressing Frankensteinian concerns is the obligation of a thinking society. When primary sources of information are at odds, we are equally obliged to demand further examination.

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