2022 The Screamers Science Hype Award goes to The BBC

I started The Screamers a few years back as a biomedical science hype award.

It’s kind of in the spirit of an Ig Noble Prize in the sense of an alternative “award”, but in this case for hype. In 2020, sadly the FDA Commissioner at the time Stephen Hahn won The Screamers award for a major COVID treatment misstatement.

This year there were many candidates.

Who won in 2022?

The Screamers Science Hype Awards.
The Screamers Science Hype Awards.

The Screamers winner: The BBC on baby “probably” saved

The winner is The BBC. I expect a lot of science coverage from The BBC and this item was terrible.

Baby’s life ‘probably saved’ by umbilical stem cells from Matthew Hill. (Note that I’m not linking to the article as I don’t want to support it.)

The headline is an odd combination of both hype and the odd “probably” disclaimer.


It  is highly unlikely that the umbilical cord cells saved a baby’s life here.

The child in question had major heart issues and the article claims that umbilical cord cells repaired that cardiac damage. This is probably intended as one of those “feel good” stem cell stories for the holidays. As a stem cell biologist, it didn’t make me feel too well though and has many problems.

While the headline says the cells used were from the umbilical cord, the piece itself says (emphasis mine):

“A heart surgeon says he “probably saved the life” of a baby by carrying out a “world-first” operation using stem cells from placentas.”

No, umbilical cords and placentas are not the same thing.

The article also says:

“Professor Massimo Caputo from the Bristol Heart Institute used pioneering stem cell injections to correct baby Finley’s heart defect.”

Did The BBC reporter ask any probing questions? What’s the clear evidence the defect was corrected? How would that work exactly? Could Finley have just healed over time?

One of the worst sentences of the piece is this:

“Allogeneic cells have the ability to grow into tissue that is not rejected and in Finley’s case, have regenerated damaged heart muscle.”

In fact, allogeneic cells are from someone else and most often will be rejected. It is possible in some cases that birth-related cells from a donor might escape attack by the immune system, but that’s not necessarily true.

There seems to be a disconnect between the birth-related stem cell injection of the baby Finley and the scaffolds discussed later in the article. The latter might have some real promise.

Overall, this BBC piece is just awful.

Why does it matter?

This kind of article is risky on many levels. It gives false hope. Such content may confuse or misinform people. Some profiteering stem cell clinics sell this kind of supposed treatment too. They may point to The BBC article as evidence that their unproven offerings are worth the risk too.

Runner-up on armadillos

There were several candidates here, but the dishonorable mention goes to this article.

Malady to miracle: Leprosy bacteria grows liver in armadillos, gives hope for human organ regeneration, Down to Earth.

This headline and its story have so many issues.

To me, the headline implies that the bacteria can grow a liver. That’d be something.

There’s no miracle here as suggested.

Of course, work in animal models can be very important, but it’s too much at this point to suggest that this could help people regenerate organs. Note that the liver is the only solid organ that already has substantial innate regenerative capacity.

The article also says the new work was published in Cell but it was in Cell Rep Med.

Here’s a STAT News piece covering the same new armadillo liver research article, but doing so in an appropriately balanced and even somewhat skeptical way. It ends with this, “I can tell you that every decade there seems to be a new magic tonic,” Friedman said. He’s been in the business 35 or 40 years. So far none of them has panned out. Then again, this is the first he’s heard about looking to armadillos.”

1 thought on “2022 The Screamers Science Hype Award goes to The BBC”

  1. I agree that these two stories are worthy of a Screamer award. The odd thing with the BBC report is that the University of Bristol published a more sober account of the same story a year ago: https://heart-institute.bristol.ac.uk/2021/12/01/pioneering-stem-cell-therapy-at-bristol-royal-hospital-for-children/

    The case report is here: https://www.jacc.org/doi/full/10.1016/j.jaccas.2021.02.039

    What concerns me about the use of MSCs in this case study is that it was performed under “compassionate use”. I am not sure what the justification was for this given that clinical trials that have involved injecting MSCs into cardiac muscle have generally been disappointing (see comment here: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2728902)

    As Prof John Rasko says in the following BBC Newsnight piece (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUfgvLN3vBg at 11:13): “Exercising the option of compassionate use brings with it great responsibility. It shouldn’t be used as a way for doctors to fly under the radar of properly undertaken regulated medical practice”.

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