New study: Stem cell field is infected with hype

Posted: April 2, 2015 at 2:43 am

When billions of dollars are at stake in scientific research, researchers quickly learn that optimism sells.

A new study published inScience Translational Medicineoffersa window into how hype arises in the interaction between the media and scientific researchers, and how resistant the hype machine is to hard, cold reality. The report'sfocus is on overly optimisticreporting on potentialstem cell therapies. Its findings are discouraging.

The study by Timothy Caulfield and Kalina Kamenova of the University of Alberta law school (Caulfieldis also on the faculty at the school of public health) found that stem cell researchers often ply journalists with "unrealistic timelines" for the development of stem cell therapies, and journalists oftenswallow these claims uncritically.

The authorsmostly blame the scientists, who need to be more aware of "the importance of conveying realistic ... timelines to the popular press." We wouldn't give journalists this much of a pass; writers on scientific topics should understand that the development of drugs and therapies can take years and involve myriad dry holes and dead ends. They should be vigilant againstgaudypromises.

That's especially true instem cell research, whichis slathered with so much money that immoderate predictions of success are common. The best illustration of that comes from California's stem cell program -- CIRM, or the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine -- a $6-billion public investment that was born in hype.

The promoters of Proposition 71, the 2004 ballot initiative that created CIRM, filled the airwaves with adsimplyingthat the only thing standing between Michael J. Fox being cured of Parkinson's or Christopher Reeve walking again was Prop. 71's money. Theycommissioned a studyassertingthat California might reap a windfall in taxes,royalties and healthcare savings up to seven times the size ofits $6-billion investment. One wouldn't build a storage shed on foundations this soft, much less a $6-billion mansion.

As we've observed before, "big science" programs create incentivesto exaggerateresults to meet the public's inflated expectations. The phenomenon was recognized as long ago as the 1960s, when the distinguished physicist Alvin Weinberg warnedthat big science "thrives on publicity," resulting in "the injection of a journalistic flavor into Big Science which is fundamentally in conflict with the scientific method.... The spectacular rather than the perceptive becomes the scientific standard."

Interestingly, the event used by the Alberta researchers as the fulcrum of their study has a strong connection to CIRM. It's the abrupt 2011 decision by Geron terminate its pioneering stem cell development program. This was a big blow to the stem cell research community and to CIRM, which had endowed Geron with a $25-million loan for its stem cell-basedspinal cord therapy development. Then-CIRM Chairman Robert Klein II had called the loan a "landmark step."

There had been evidence, however, that CIRM, eager to show progress toward bringing stem cell therapies to market, had downplayed legitimate questions about the state of Geron's science and the design of the clinical trial. AndGeron had been criticized in the past for over-promising results.

In their study, Caulfield and Kamenova examined more than 300 articles appearing in 14 general-interest newspapers in the United States, Canada and Britain from 2010 to2013. They scrutinizedthe articles' reporting oftimelines for the "realization of the clinical promise of stem cell research" and their perspective on the future of the field generally. The U.S. newspapers were the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and USA Today.

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New study: Stem cell field is infected with hype

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