Nobel Consideration of Adult Stem Cell Researcher Should Be Teachable Moment to AP Political Reporters

http://i739.photobucket.com/albums/xx40/mmatters/StemCellsDo the science writers and political reporters at the Associated Press ever compare notes? Based on their divergent coverage of stem cell research, it seems doubtful.

On Sunday, AP science writer Milan Rising reported that a Japanese scientist was under probable consideration to win this year's Nobel Prize in medicine:

A Japanese researcher who discovered how to make stem cells from ordinary skin cells and avoid the ethical quandaries of making them from human eggs could be a candidate for the medicine award when the 2010 Nobel Prize announcements kick off Monday, experts said.

Several prominent Nobel guessers have pointed to Kyoto University Professor Shinya Yamanaka as a potential winner of the coveted award.

Though the prize, announced this morning, went to another gentleman, the question remains: How could this be? As a court case over President Obama's executive order permitting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research has been progressing through its various appeals during the past several weeks, AP's political writers have been giving readers the clear impression that it is the research involving the destruction of human embryos that holds the real promise of scientific progress. Uh, not exactly. In fact, not at all.

Here are several other paragraphs from Rising's rendition:

Yamanaka in 2007 discovered how to tinker with human skin cells so they behave like embryonic stem cells, which can potentially morph into things like heart and nerve cells, as well as lead to new therapies for currently incurable diseases.

... "The outlook for the future is vertiginous," (Swedish Radio and Science Writer Karin) Bojs wrote about Yamanaka's discovery. "It triggers dreams that any little cell from me can be made into new teeth, new knee joints, cure diabetes, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's disease."

The Japanese scientist received the Lasker Award in 2009 for his discovery, which has been embraced by scientists around the world because it doesn't entail getting stem cells from embryos.

Many winners of the Lasker Award - often dubbed "America's Nobel" - go on to win Nobel Prizes.

On the political side, less than a week ago (covered at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), an AP item by Nedra Pickler, in response to a courtroom development concerning Obama's executive order, was headlined: "Court OKs US-funded stem cell research for now." This gave those who didn't move on to Pickler's report the erroneous impression that the battle was over all stem cell research. Not that those who did read further were much better off: Picker's opening paragraph mentioned "embryonic stem cell research" and never mentioned the existence of any other branch of the research, likely leading many less-informed readers to believe that embryonic research is the only kind.

This paragraph exemplifies Pickler's' misdirection:

Researchers hope one day to use stem cells in ways that cure spinal cord injuries, Parkinson's disease and other ailments. Opponents say the research is a form of abortion because human embryos must be destroyed to obtain the stem cells.

Although not approved for general medical use, adult stem cell research has successfully improved the medical conditions of several people with the aforementioned diseases, as has shown meaningful promise against dozens of other illnesses and maladies. Embryonic research cannot is not even past the, well, embryonic stage.

Despite that fact, Pickler chose to carry a deeply deceptive comment from White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs claiming that "President Obama made expansion of stem cell research and the pursuit of groundbreaking treatments and cures a top priority when he took office." If that were the case, the administration would be aggressively funding adult stem cell research or letting the science sort itself out without government intervention. But instead it wants to throw money at life-taking research that's not working.

Three weeks earlier (covered at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog), the AP's Jesse L. Holland performed an act of obfuscation similar to Pickler's. His headline ("Judge won't let stem cell money keep flowing") also gave readers the impression that the Obama executive order court case is about all stem cell research, and avoided using the term "adult stem cell research" until a very late paragraph which childishly described objecting litigants' primary purpose as stopping "extra competition."

Meanwhile, last week in the real world there was exciting adult stem cell news out of Boston:

Advance made in stem cell creation
Boston scientists’ new method is faster, more efficient

Boston scientists have pioneered a fast and efficient technique for turning adult cells into stem cells that is already changing laboratory practice and eliminates a major safety hurdle to eventually using such cells to treat patients.

The discovery four years ago that skin cells can be transformed into powerful stem cells capable of developing into any type of cell in the body was a major breakthrough for scientists who have sought to harness the natural regenerative capacity of the body to heal patients. But the breakthrough came with caveats: The method used to reprogram stem cells involved viruses and genes that modify the genome and could cause cancer.

The new technique, published online yesterday in the journal Cell Stem Cell, does not involve dangerous genetic alterations and is almost twice as fast and up to 100 times more efficient than the standard method used to spin cells back to an embryonic-like state. The induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, that are formed more closely resemble embryonic stem cells than those made using standard methods.

“Several of the major hurdles toward clinical translation of iPS cells are addressed by this technology, and that’s what we’re excited about,’’ said Derrick Rossi, a stem cell biologist at Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute who led the research.

The news from Boston came almost two months after AP science writer Malcolm Ritter told readers (covered at NewsBusters; at BizzyBlog) that "Adult Stem Cell Research (Is) Far Ahead of Embryonic." The news out of Boston indicates that there's no longer a meaningful rivalry. Instead, adult stem cell research is winning in a rout.

It would be quite helpful if Ritter and Rising could get a hold of the AP reporters covering politics and set them straight -- assuming the political folks are interested in the truth and not simply relaying the Obama administration's deceptive spin.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.