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Stem Cell Research: The Quest Resumes


5 Star

Stem Cell Research: The Quest Resumes

Our Review Summary

This is a first-rate piece of magazine journalism.

The article, as much about basic stem cell science as about medical treatment, focuses on one key researcher’s efforts to advance understanding of stem cells. The article puts those efforts in the context of politics, past and current research and the potential for clinical application. It personalizes the story without generating false emotion or hope.

It’s a strong example of how journalists can educate the public about the importance and difficulties of scientific research–something that’s very useful against a backdrop of so much out-of-context, misleading reporting about the benefits and dangers of drugs and treatments. It’s particularly useful in an area where political interests have distorted some underlying scientific issues.

The story could have been made even stronger if the author had talked to politically neutral people who for scientific reasons are less sanguine about the outcomes of stem cell research.

The scientific community has endured years of having to defend the importance–indeed, the legality–of work with stem cells. This has resulted in a nearly united front in the field advancing the message that stem cell research is on the cusp of life-saving application and a transforming force in the history of medicine.

This may turn out to be accurate. It may not.

Only at the very end does the story explore the safety and efficacy issues that are important barriers to clinical application. It would have been better to have a little more of this a little earlier and to have it supplemented by an independent voice. 


Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Applicable

Since there are no treatments yet, this criterion is not applicable.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?


Near the end of the story, a paragraph states that successful treatments are not guaranteed, and that the safety of using the cells in humans has not been proven.

The paragraph mentions the possiblity that cancer may be a side effect, and that the most promising type of stem cells have not been shown to develop fully into their original counterparts.

This information comes late, but it is satisfactory. 

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?


The story does an excellent job of describing the history and current status of stem cell research. Readers understand that the evidence of any benefit is preliminary and knowledge still developing.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The story generates emotion and sense of urgency by describing how Douglas Melton’s children, who have Type 1 diabetes, could benefit from treatments that may grow out of his research.

But Melton does appear to be motivated in part by his children’s stories, and there are many other people in the same situation, hoping for clinical stem cell treatments. In this case, using those anecdotes to frame the piece is not inappropriate.  

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?


The author quotes four sources, including the subject of the story. All are experts in the field who are familiar with Melton’s and others’ research.

All of the sources have some interest in positive outcomes of the research, either personal, professional, political or [presumably] financial. The author should have indicated this. 

It would have been useful to have the voice of someone who is more skeptical about the safety and imminence of stem cell therapies, but overall the sourcing is satisfactory.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?


The story says that Type 1 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, two targets of stem cell therapies under development, do not have cures.

Because the story is not about the treatments, however, it is not necessary to discuss how these patients are currently treated.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?


The story focuses on basic stem cell research conducted in vitro and in animals. It makes clear that clinical applications are not available. 

It mentions that the FDA has just approved the first small trial of stem cells in patients with severe spinal cord injuries.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


The story’s detailed history and context allow a reader to appreciate what aspects of stem cell research are new and novel.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?


It is clear that this article did not rely on a news release. 

Total Score: 8 of 8 Satisfactory


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