On stem cells, CNN gives equal billing to conservative activist, scientific consensus


A CNN report on stem cells derived from amniotic fluid equated an opponent of embryonic stem cell research who has peddled a discredited list of ailments purportedly treatable from adult stem cell research with "other scientists" who "argue that embryonic stem cells are unique and hold the power to potentially cure many diseases."

While reporting on a study released January 7 that found stem cells could be derived from amniotic fluid, CNN correspondent Mary Snow equated researcher David A. Prentice, Ph.D., senior fellow of life sciences at the conservative Family Research Council, with "other scientists" who "argue that embryonic stem cells are unique and hold the power to potentially cure many diseases." Snow did identify Prentice as an "opponent" of stem cell research, but did not note that, to argue against embryonic stem cell research, he has repeatedly claimed that adult stem cell research has yielded some 65 current therapies for various ailments, and has created a discredited list of diseases that he claims adult stem cell therapy currently treats. Nor did Snow note that among the scientists who disagree that the study might obviate embryonic stem cells was the study's author himself.

As Colorado Media Matters has noted (here and here), researchers Shane Smith, William Neaves, and Steven Teitelbaum have refuted Prentice's claim in a letter to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) for publication in the association's magazine, Science. The three found that FDA-approved adult stem cell treatments are available for only nine diseases. In a review of the references Prentice used in support of his claim, Smith, Neaves, and Teitelbaum wrote, "Prentice not only misrepresents existing adult stem cell treatments but also frequently distorts the nature and content of the references he cites."

Neaves and his colleagues cited several examples of diseases for which they said Prentice misrepresented the effectiveness of adult stem cell therapies. They wrote: "The reference Prentice cites for testicular cancer on his list does not report patient response to adult stem cell therapy; it simply evaluates different methods of adult stem cell isolation." Similarly, "The reference Prentice cites on non-Hodgkin's lymphoma does not assess the treatment value of adult stem cell transplantation; rather, it describes culture conditions for the laboratory growth of stem cells from lymphoma patients."

Researchers at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine found that embryonic stem cells derived from amniotic fluids -- the fluid surrounding the fetuses of pregnant women -- were reportedly capable of growing "muscle, bone, fat, blood vessel, nerve and liver cells in the laboratory." In her report, Snow did not note that, included with "other scientists" who argue "that embryonic stem cells are unique" was Dr. Anthony Atala, the amniotic stem cell study's lead researcher.

As Reuters reported, amniotic cells are considered to be "easier to grow than human embryonic stem cells" and do not appear to form tumors as embryonic stem cells have in early research. Atala expressed hope that the cells could "give rise to any type of tissue in the body - blood, nerve, muscle" as embryonic stem cells are capable of doing. But, according to Reuters, Atala noted that the "amniotic fluid-derived cells are a close second" to the more controversial embryonic stem cells, which "are considered the most malleable of the various types of stem cells." The Washington Post also reported that Atala "emphasized that they don't believe the cells will make embryonic stem cells irrelevant."

From the January 8 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

SNOW: A new stem cell class, but one that is just being learned about. Researchers say preliminary tests in patients are years away. Embryonic stem cell opponents are wasting no time in applauding the discovery.

PRENTICE: You do away with the ethical problems associated with embryonic stem cells, but you get all of the positives that most scientists say they want.

SNOW: Other scientists say, "not so fast," and argue that embryonic stem cells are unique and hold the power to potentially cure many diseases.

JOHN D. GEARHART, Ph.D. (professor, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine)*: They're the only ones we know about that can form all 220-some different cell types that constitute the human body. Now, that's remarkable.

SNOW: The new stem cell research comes as House lawmakers plan to introduce a bill Thursday to expand stem cell research. One of its sponsors says the latest study won't alter the debate.


The original version of this item incorrectly linked to the biography of John P. Gearhart, M.D., a professor at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and director of pediatric urology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. In fact, the person in the CNN segment is John D. Gearhart, Ph.D, a professor in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine graduate program at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Media Matters for America regrets the error.

Posted In
Environment & Science, Stem Cell Research
Mary Snow
The Situation Room
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