Thursday, 22 September 2011

More hype about embryonic stem cells from the BBC

The BBC today is running a new stem cell story with the grandiose title ‘UK medics lead Europe's first embryonic stem cell trial’ as follows:

Doctors at Moorfields Eye hospital in London have been given the go-ahead to carry out Europe's first clinical trial using human embryonic stem cells.

They will inject retinal cells into the eyes of 12 patients with an incurable disease, Stargardt's macular dystrophy, which causes progressive sight loss.

The disease develops in childhood and affects around one in 10,000 people.
It causes the gradual loss of central vision leaving only peripheral sight.

The trial will test the safety of using replacement retinal cells known as retinal pigment epithelial cells, derived from human embryonic stem cells.

Health correspondent Fergus Walsh then goes on to quote a source from the commercial company investing in this research who is typically effusive in his praise:

The trial is a partnership with an American bio-tech company Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) which has already begun treating patients in California.

Gary Rabin, chairman and CEO of ACT described the Moorfields trial as ‘another milestone for the field of regenerative medicine’.

Well isn’t that a surprise. The chairman of the biotechnology company that stands to benefit is hailing it as a milestone. We then get from Walsh the usual overhyped claims about embryonic stem cell treatments that are par for the course from the BBC:

Supporters say embryonic stem cell therapy has the potential to treat not only blindness but a huge range of disorders, from heart disease to cancer.

Well they would wouldn't they. And then we are told that the only objection to the procedure is an ethical one:

Opponents object to the procedure because it began with the destruction of a human embryo.

I’ve come to the conclusion that this latest story is causing such excitement for five main reasons:

1.Our media are obsessed with any story involving embryonic stem cells despite the fact that these entities have not yet provided any treatments for any human disease after more than ten years of hype (By contrast adult and umbilical stem cells have already provided treatments for over 80 diseases – see my Triple Helix review)

2.Because there is ethical controversy in their use (as harvesting them involves the destruction of human embryos) it provides an opportunity for the media to revive the myth that religious zealots are trying to hold back scientific advance and stop millions of people being cured from terrible diseases.

3.The science correspondents writing for our national newspapers and the BBC seem not to read medical journals any more but simply regurgitate press releases produced by commercial companies (like ACT) who wish to promote their products and improve their public image.

4.ACT have lots of money and a very good PR machine.

5.British scientists are worried about research funding in the current economic climate and so are trying to attract public and media attention in the hope of attracting grants so they are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible politicians and members of the public with exaggerated claims.

If you go to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website which logs current clinical trials you will find there are 3,576 listings of trials involving adult stem cells and 168 involving umbilical stem cells. These therapies are increasingly well established and pose no ethical problems (and so are of little interest to the British media).

By contrast today’s story is of the first European clinical trial involving embryonic stem cells after over a decade of breath-holding. There are no results yet and no scientific papers yet published in any peer-reviewed journals.

This story seems to be in the news simply because ACT has decided to announce to the world that they have started a clinical trial involving a possible future treatment that has not yet (and may well never) actually deliver.

And the BBC has willingly given them the international news coverage they covet so much. According to Google news 245 media outlets are already running the story.

For those interested about real advances in this area involving ethically derived stem cells I list below four previous articles from this blog over the last year reviewing landmark research about which you will learn virtually nothing from the British media.

1.American scientists make new breakthrough in producing embryonic-like stem cells by ethical means but British media doesn’t notice

2.If you want to know about advances in the treatment of spinal cord injury don’t read any British newspaper or ask the BBC

3.Further Stem Cell advance brings clinical trials with ethically produced embryonic-like stem cells one step closer

4.Three exciting news stories about ethical stem cell treatments this month


  1. I'm confused. You talk of hype. Does this mean you WOULD support embryonic stem cell therapy if only it were PROVEN to cure people with terrible diseases?

    Or would you object to it *anyway*?

    Btw, from where are these embryos derived - are they aborted fetuses, or specially created for research? If the former, they may as well be used since they're being destroyed anyway, right?

  2. Embryonic stem cells are derived by cannibalising human embryos and on that basis I would object to it anyway. That goes without saying. And that is the only thing that we are ever allowed to say publicly by the BBC who want to create the impression that the only objection to this technology is ethical. I have had sentences literally cut in half by BBC television who like to craft their opposition soundbites to further their agenda. They want to create the impression that this is a debate between religion and science when it is actually a debate about scientific evidence.

    However, as I argue here, there is very little evidence that embryonic stem cells are going to deliver therapeutically anyway. And there are ethical alternatives which are already delivering - adult and umblical cells - and further promise on the horizon with iPS (induced pluripotent stem cells).

    My point is that the BBC never tell us about the ethical alternatives where all the real action is but instead overhype every mention of embryonic stem cells long before they have delivered any viable therapies. This latest example is a classic case in point.

  3. Hey Pete first go blind then will make a world of difference.


  4. There are about 30 million people blind by WHO definitions. Most of this blindness could be prevented or cured by cheap and simple measures through antibiotics, vitamin A and surgery.

    If a fraction of the money wasted on overhyped embryonic stem cell research were to be spent on these key priorities and if BBC health correspondents devoted their time to publicising advances that actually make a real difference to blind people the world would be a far better place.

  5. But they are not the cause of blindness in the West. We have effectively dealt with those forms of blindness.

    An even if this research costed billions, it most likely has not approach any near that amount, it still would not solve the problem that corrupt government, poor management, lack of nurses and doctors prevent these people from getting the same medical care as the Western world.
    Also why should we stopped trying to improve our lot just to hope 3rd world countries, we should and need to do both.

  6. Retinal degeneration due to genetic, diabetic and age-related disease is the most common cause of blindness in the developed world - agreed. And stem cells are a very promising avenue of research.

    But advances in reprogramming adult cells have shown how it may be possible to generate autologous stem cells for transplantation without the need for an embryo donor.

    This type of research is ethical but virtually never reported by the BBC or British press.

    Of course we should aim at improvement here - but let's do it ethically. And let's at the same time make a much bigger inpact in the developing world where results per pound invested are exponentially higher.

    The problems are not nearly as insurmountable as you imply. The main think we lack is the will.

  7. >> They want to create the impression that this is a debate between religion and science when it is actually a debate about scientific evidence.

    Now I am confused. You have just said that you would object to it ANYWAY. That means even if there WERE scientific evidence, you would object. No?

    Btw, you say embryos are "cannibalised", but you have not actually answered my question. Are these embryos CREATED specially to harvest the stem cells, or are they simply embryos that are being ABORTED *anyway*?

    If these are aborted embryos, they will simply be flushed down the sink or incinerated. So whay waste them? The people who are having abortions will be having them whether or not you use their embryos for research. No?

  8. Rich,

    Don't be so stupid and offensive. It just shows that you have no sensible arguments to offer.

    David Knowles,

    >> it still would not solve the problem that corrupt government, poor management, lack of nurses and doctors

    What a wonderful excuse for refusing to help poorer countries! You should be ashamed of yourself. If the West did not waste so much money, people in the developing world would be better off.

  9. Btw, you say embryos are "cannibalised", but you have not actually answered my question. Are these embryos CREATED specially to harvest the stem cells, or are they simply sboembryos that are being ABORTED *anyway*?


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