Cloning human embryonic stem cells: “Major Medical Breakthrough”? Or “Generating Little Excitement”?

For at least the second time in a week, we have seen polar opposite news coverage on a medical science story.

Fox News reported on a paper in the journal Cell:

“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.”

The New York Times called it: “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.”

The Los Angeles Times and USA Today made it a front page story, clearly giving weight to its significance.

But the Boston Globe reports on the same paper, stating that the paper is “generating little excitement,” and, that while “it is a key technical advance,” it is “not a breakthrough.” Its story concludes:

“And so a major quest in science comes to an end, in a saga that shows how a major scientific quest can fall to the wayside with advances in technology and knowledge. Moreover, grand scientific missions are often just the first step toward transforming human health. Even if the technique turns out to have some advantage over reprogramming, what lies ahead is the long road toward taking a technique and turning it into something that could be a useful therapy.”

The Washington Post, more in line with the Globe, reports:

“Few experts think that production of stem cells through cloning is likely to be medically useful soon, or possibly ever.

“An outstanding issue of whether it would work in humans has been resolved,” said Rudolf Jaenisch, a biologist at MIT’s Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Mass., who added that he thinks the feat “has no clinical relevance.”


I wrote at the top that this was the second such “whom to believe” medical science news story in a week.  The other was captured nicely on the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, “Report on Salt and Health Spawns Conflicting, Confusing Messages From the Media.” 


Healthday admonishing us that “Most Americans Should Eat Less Salt,” The New York Times reporting that there’s “No Benefit Seen in Sharp Limits on Salt in Diet,” and The New York Daily News advising us to “Go Ahead and Order that Side of Fries.” All these, remarkably, stemmed from the very same Institute of Medicine report.”


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