Searching for the source of stem cell “fountain of youth” stories

A new study made global headlines last week with the claim that researchers can now “reverse” aging in mice.

The study authors used a technique called “cellular reprogramming,” which is used to transform regular adult cells into pluripotent stem cells, to prolong the lives of mice that were genetically modified to age prematurely.

STAT’s story about the study is headlined, “Fountain-of-youth molecules make mice young again, extending their lives.”


Stem cell researcher and prominent anti-hype advocate Paul Knoepfler said STAT’s framing, which was shared by several other stories that I saw, was out of bounds.

“Yeah, I’d say that’s way over the top,” he wrote on his blog.

Where did the stories come from?

Knoepfler suggested the researchers themselves weren’t to blame for exaggerating the impact of the findings.

“…from my initial look at the paper, I don’t think the authors engaged in hype in the discussion of their results so kudos,” Knoepfler said.

And at least one observer reacting on Twitter put the blame squarely on journalists for overselling the results.

I’m certainly not going to defend any headline that framed this study as a “fountain of youth” — even if it did qualify that it was in mice.

But I do think there’s some evidence that the researchers — or someone in their lab — were complicit in advancing an unrealistic narrative about the study.

The news release put out by Cell, the journal which published the study, includes the following graphic which is credited to the lab that conducted the research — Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte Lab /Salk Institute.


Is the mouse “time machine” depicted here any less sensationalistic than STAT’s “fountain of youth”?

What purpose could this illustration have possibly served except to promote a ridiculously simplistic view of the research?

Words matter. Images matter.

I don’t want to make too much of this. We don’t know if this graphic had any impact on reporters covering the study (although the cartoon did find its way into at least one news story that I found).

But I think it’s circumstantial evidence that the researchers weren’t above using a little promotional flair to attract news coverage — if not in the published study itself then in the accompanying news release.

I also think it’s an important reminder of the fact that news releases play a pivotal role in how research gets reported.

News that gets framed cautiously in these documents, more often than not, will be reported more responsibly by news organizations. The reverse is also true.

Words matter and images matter, at every step in the news stream from research lab to news consumer.

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Comments (1)

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sharon begley

January 2, 2017 at 7:57 am

It always amuses me when journalists are criticized (in this case by Knoepfler and Fikes, among others) for going beyond the published paper. Hello? That’s called reporting. When the lead author says in an interview (do these scientists actually not realize we interview people?) that he’s *already* parlaying the mouse results on the Yamanaka factors into a topical treatment for humans, it would be dishonest journalism not to mention the possibility of human application. So really, can we make a 2017 resolution to retire the “OMG, the reporter went beyond the paper!” criticism?