What is stem cell media?
When us scientists hear the phrase “stem cell media” we usually think about the liquid food that we feed our stem cells in the lab, which resembles a kind of nutrient-rich Kool-aid, but another kind of stem cell media consists of the news coverage of stem cells.
This other kind of stem cell media does a service in education the public, but it sometimes goes astray to engage in hype or get things factually wrong. This media mess may be akin to us scientists giving our stem cells growing in a dish actual Kool-aid rather than their special growth media. Not good.
Other times us scientists goof up in this arena by engaging in science by press release or using words that are too emotionally charged such as “cure” or “miracle” or breathless adjectives when we talk to journalists.
Let’s take three examples of recent stories out there in the stem cell media with my grades on how the pieces did. Of course, these are just my opinions. I’d be curious of your thoughts. Keep in mind, here I am grading the media, not the science.
Stem cells for vision loss. Media grade: B-. From New Scientist/the AP comes a new article focused on stem cells for vision loss entitled, “Stem cell therapy reverses sight loss and lets people read again.” Let’s kind of fact check it and think it through. On the positive side, the news article itself seems accurate and it cites the journal article that it refers to (see also a nice workflow diagram from Figure 1 in this pub above), which focused on using hESC-derived eye cells (retinal pigmented epithelial cells) for treating macular degeneration. Also, the news article cited other highly relevant work with links, which is useful. The new article in addition has a quote from the senior scientist on the new research paper: “This [new] study represents real progress in regenerative medicine and opens the door on new treatment options for people with age-related macular degeneration,” says Pete Coffey at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology, part of the team who carried out the trial.” On the other hand, the media article doesn’t mention three serious adverse events that occurred with the patients. These events were not directly attributable to the cells used, but should have been mentioned. Also, the research in question was only conducted on two patients. A small N can sometimes yield results that don’t hold up over time with larger groups of patients for a variety of reasons. In addition, this was a study with no control subjects, which wasn’t mentioned in the news piece. Note that no author is cited in the news item.
Stem cells for MS. Media Grade B. From the BBC comes this article by Fergus Walsh, “Stem cell transplant ‘game changer’ for MS patients.” This sounds exciting. It’s a report on a presentation at a meeting rather than a journal article. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but it just warrants some extra caution since the data haven’t gone through peer review, etc. The media article includes some specific stats and those do sound encouraging as to stem cells for multiple sclerosis. It includes a number of upbeat quotes from scientists, a patient, and the MS Society UK. It also has this statement, which adds some balance, “Doctors stress it is not suitable for all MS patients and the process can be gruelling, involving chemotherapy and a few weeks in isolation in hospital.” On the other hand, it has no links to other articles for context and some quotes seem potentially overly exuberant. It also does not mention that it appears that some patients have actually died during this or similar studies. On the whole, I see this as a mostly solid stem cell media piece from the BBC. Hopefully when the actual paper comes out after peer review we won’t think in hindsight that this media coverage was too much. Many MS patients could really use a new, effective therapeutic option.
Stem cells for paralysis. Media Grade A-. From SingularityHub comes this piece “In Landmark Study, Human Stem Cells Restore Monkeys’ Movement After Spinal Cord Injury” on a translational study on the use of stem cells for paralysis in non-human primates. The use of the word “landmark” can be an issue in the press along with similar words like “breakthrough.” This article starts off fairly balanced noting that intuitively stem cell approaches can seem attractive, “But as it happens, the body isn’t quite the simple find-and-replace system. Stem cells when transplanted alone often don’t take, dying off inside the host’s hostile environment before they have a chance to restore function.” This is indeed a key roadblock so I’m glad that author Shelly Fan mentioned it.
She also links to the scientific article (see part of Figure 1 above) and includes links to other helpful context. The SingularityHub piece in addition talks about the translational science in depth including failures along the way, which gets a thumbs up for giving an accurate picture of how this kind of work unfolds. It’s not some kind of quick magic. There are quotes from other scientists for balance. On the other hand, I’d say some of the language in the piece from Fan herself or others is a bit strong such as, “the results were stunning”. I like how the piece wraps up with this from team leader Dr. Mark Tuszynski of UCSD
“To Tuszynski, the work is only beginning. For one, not all stem cells are created equal, and his team is trying to determine which ones are most effective at functional repair.
For another, he is also exploring additional ways to further boost the functionality of the regenerated neurons, so that their axons can extend across the injured site and completely replace those lost to injury.
“Patience will be required when moving to humans,” he cautioned, adding that additional safety trials will be necessary before clinical trials. But care pays off.
“There is clearly significant potential here that we hope will benefit humans with spinal cord injury,” he said.”
That’s a nicely balanced quote from Dr. Tuszynski, who clearly is rightly excited about his lab’s cool work, but puts it in the right context. Nice job. And as a whole this media piece does well.
The bottom line is that a careful look at these three media pieces on stem cells shows they did pretty well as a group, but issues can still arise even in mostly solid news coverage of regenerative medicine.