Telling the truth about stem cells
Published on September 16th, 2014
by Kathleen M. Gallagher
Yesterday’s New York Times contained a terribly misleading story about stem cells called “The Trials of Stem Cell Therapy: Plenty of Hope, But Halting Progress.” Online, the story leads with a photograph of embryonic stem cells. It then begins to profile a young man who suffered a heart attack, had significant heart damage, and received a stem cell transplant. His story is obviously one of success, as the next photo we are treated to is one of him break dancing.
Not once in the first 13 paragraphs of the article does the author differentiate between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells; they are all mushed together and lauded as “stem cell therapies.” But the 14th paragraph leads with this: “Stem cells harvested from an embryo can turn into any of the body’s 200 cell types…,” and below that, a photo of developing human embryos. Readers could easily conclude that embryonic stem cells had been used to successfully treat the young man.
Turns out, nope, not so much. Only at the very end of the article do readers learn that doctors used adult stem cells from the young man’s own bone marrow to treat his heart damage. These stem cells re-built his cardiac muscle cells, leading him on the path to recovery.
The overwhelming majority of success stories with stem cell treatments come from adult stem cells, an ethical source of these cells which does not require the destruction of innocent human life. Journalists have a responsibility to clearly explain the difference between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells, and to advise the public of which therapies are actually working.