March 3, 2024


History or hype? This was the question swirling about the widely publicised announcement by a Massachusetts company that it had mastered a technique for creating "ethical" embryonic stem cells which could break the logjam in America’s stem cell politics. Nature rushed its article into an on-line express edition. "We have demonstrated, for the first time, that human embryonic stem cells can be generated without interfering with the embryo’s potential for life," said lead author Robert Lanza.

The CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, William Caldwell, : "we do not destroy the embryo. That’s the whole purpose of what we perceive to be a major scientific breakthrough." Ronald Green, a bioethicist at Dartmouth who heads ACT’s Ethics Advisory Board, gave it his imprimatur. "This technique overcomes this [ethical] hurdle and has the potential to play a critical role in the advancement of regenerative medicine."

However, after Richard Doerflinger, of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, — to say nothing of media coverage around the world – was completely wrong. None of the embryos described in the paper had survived. Nature hastily corrected the wording of its own press release.

What Lanza’s team had done was to biopsy an eight-cell human embryo and gently remove a single cell — a standard technique nowadays in IVF. With this cell he created a stem cell line while the embryo continued to develop normally. At least that was what he intended. In fact, although 16 embryos were dismembered into 91 separate cells, Lanza produced only two stem cell lines. "It was a very disruptive, very wasteful, very inefficient procedure, and it left all the old embryos dead, just like the old method did," said Doerflinger. He also claimed that it was deceitful to post a picture of a mature healthy embryo which had survived the removal of a single cell.

Criticism. In a rare moment of consensus on the controversial issue of embryonic stem cells, even supporters of therapeutic cloning dismissed Lanza’s work. "A pitiful attempt to look morally acceptable, rather than do valuable science," sneered Glenn McGee, editor of the American Journal of Bioethics. Some critics compared Lanza’s economy with the truth to the prevarications of disgraced Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk. Although this seems unfair, there is no doubt that the episode shows how credulous the media — even leading scientific journals — can be about therapeutic cloning. Lanza’s work represented a small technical advance, but it hardly passed muster as a "breakthrough".

Media coverage. The media has a short memory. Only last year the ethics of this experiment had been thoroughly analysed in a major ? but quickly buried — white paper by the President’s Council for Bioethics. It was criticised then for potentially harming the embryo. The Council also pointed out that the biopsied cell might be totipotent and could therefore be an embryo itself, raising further ethical problems.

Furthermore, Advanced Cell Technology has a track record as a publicity hound. A listed company which is perpetually in the red, it burst onto the front page claiming that it had cloned a human embryo and initiated a stem cell line. Nothing came of that extraordinary wave of publicity, but it no doubt put ACT scientists in the rolodexes of journalists across the world.

Significant advance. A development was far more significant, even though it has been totally ignored by the media. Japanese scientists reported in another major journal, Cell, that they had reprogrammed an adult mouse cell and converted it into something closely resembling an embryonic stem cell. Scientists from the Harvard Stem Cell group grudgingly acknowledged in a commentary that it was a "significant step" "unencumbered by neither the logistical constraints nor the societal concerns presented by somatic cell nuclear transfer [ie, cloning]." If this success can be replicated with human cells, it might indeed transform America’s stem cell politics.


Australia’s minister for health has been accused of "scaremongering" to discourage support for therapeutic cloning by the chair of a committee which recommended it. Professor Loane Skene, of the University of Melbourne, said that Tony Abbott, a blunt, pugnacious social conservative, was wrong to suggest that cloning embryos would eventually lead to reproductive cloning.

Mr Abbott has been campaigning against therapeutic cloning, which will be debated in the Federal Parliament sometime later this year. His stand is that without substantial scientific progress, there is no need to change the existing law. "People are asking us to cross a very serious ethical bridge for no good reason because there is no strong evidence that this kind of research is actually going to produce the massive breakthroughs that people are claiming," Mr Abbott told ABC television.

"I think what we are seeing at the moment is a lot of peddling of hope, but no great evidence that these new and radical research techniques are actually going to produce the breakthroughs that some of the more evangelical scientists are claiming for them."