August 4, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

‘Adventurous’ woman sought to carry Neanderthal baby: candidate for dumbest stem cell story of 2013 already pops up

NeanderthalThe headline reads:

‘Adventurous’ woman sought to carry Neanderthal baby

Supposedly Harvard Geneticist George Church, according to Der Spiegel magazine (and gazillions of other mainstream media outlets that translated the German piece including here), wants to clone a Neanderthal baby using an unholy combination of stem cell and genetics technologies.

The only problem is that Church has indicated that the German magazine and their reporter seem to have gotten the story all wrong, perhaps via problems with translation. In fact, Church says, he is not an advocate of Neanderthal cloning at all.

George ChurchThe Boston Herald quotes Church as follows:

“The real story here is how these stories have percolated and changed in different ways,” George M. Church, a Harvard geneticist who helped kick off the Human Genome Project, told the Herald last night. “I’m sure we’ll get it sorted out eventually.”

Wow.

I suppose there are some lessons from this bizarre situation. First, there are risks associated with talking with reporters. I know that well myself. Second, there is enormous public interest in stem cell technologies and genomics. Third, people are also super interested in reproductive cloning and the media will use that interest to try to sell magazines and newspaper.

The Herald goes on:

Church said his own work focuses on ways to use genetics, DNA and genome sequencing to aid in improving health care and developing synthetic fuels, materials and other products — not reproducing ancient human species.

Church said he has done perhaps 500 interviews about his research during more than two decades and this is the first one to spiral out of control quite like this.

But he said, “I’m not going to run away. … I want to use it as an educational moment to talk about journalism and technology.”

I am curious what the heck Church did say to the reporter though and how in the world the reporter go so much so wrong.

The story has created a media feeding frenzy. The National Post Wire Service, for example, has a piece entitled “Harvard scientist looking for surrogate to clone Neanderthal baby using ancient DNA” that ends with this outrageous assertion:

“The professor claims that he could introduce parts of the Neanderthal genome to human stem cells and clone them to create a foetus.”

I wonder what’s next for the stem cell field for 2013?