May 25, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

The New Scientist goes after ES cells with strange opinion piece

What the heck happened to The New Scientist?

An anti-embryonic stem cell piece they just recently published was an exercise in weird, moral obfuscation.

Quite a few scientists and policy makers are fairly regular readers of The New Scientist. They might start reconsidering how they want to spend that $99/year. Why not use it to support stem cell research or your favorite charity instead?

I have to admit that I’m not a regular reader of it, but I do check out their pieces now and then if one catches my eye. This one, entitled “In praise of stem cell simplicity” was like a fish hook in the eye.

It was painful to read because it got so many things wrong and it is written in such a way that it does not take reading between the lines to see the anti-embryonic stem cell message the authors were pushing.

After discussing ES cells, which they say are “fraught with controversy” (citing their own 10 year old article as the source for that claim) and associating them with the “notorious fraud” of that Korean researcher, they go on to say:

Now there are different avenues of research that are simpler in many ways.

What’s the problem with simplicity?

Well, nothing in general.

But the stem cell avenues they mention in this piece are not simple and are not inherently better than ES cells.  The avenues they claim are simpler include transdifferentiation (in rats) and iPS cells. Of course both have great potential, but they do not take the place of human ES cells and are scientifically actually just as complex as derivation of human ES cells. Most scientists who are up to speed on the iPS cell field remain very excited about iPS cells, but realize the technical challenges that must be hurdled before they could be used clinically. In contrast, two clinical trials of human ES cells are already under way. Make no mistake, I’m a big fan of iPS cells, but we have some challenges ahead on that front. Oversimplifying the situation as The New Scientist piece does, helps nobody except those who do not like ES cells.

Perhaps in the mind of the editorial writer, the other stem cell approaches are ethically simpler and in that way better? That’s seemingly the message.

The piece ends with an apparent attempt to be balanced, which ends up reading as overly simplistic, sugary nonsense.

Of course all avenues of stem cell research should continue, not least because work on embryos provides fundamental insights. But it pays to keep looking for new approaches, and nature’s locker can often yield useful secrets. Though there are never easy answers, sometimes there are unexpectedly simple ones.

Inaccurate, “moral” pieces published in media sources that have huge number of  readers can do big damage because they cloud the facts and confuse readers into thinking ES cells are universally considered unethical or bad.

Almost a year ago, we had a similar situation where the NY Times published a terrible article on stem cells that had the potential for major negative impact. I wrote a counter piece that slammed them for their inaccurate, morally confused piece and that was one of the most read posts I have ever done on my blog. I have to admit it was pretty strongly worded overall and the title was:

NY Times goes tabloid: hit piece on stem cell research and researchers

Let’s not stand for these articles.

Please contact New Scientist Editor, Roger Highfield here and please take 10 seconds to leave him a message about what you think of his magazine’s stem cell article.

You may also contact the magazine directly here to voice our displeasure.