stem cell firsts

The media, often lead down the primrose path by university science departments who put out overly aggressive press releases, loves to report stem cell firsts. As you’ve seen from this blog, they usually aren’t anything close to a real “first”. Case in point is the Vancouver Sun, who reported this week that, for the first time ever, type I diabetes had been reversed with stem cells! Sounds pretty amazing, right? Not so fast, as anyone who spends any energy following stem cell research would do a double take. Turns out that this “first” was with embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in mice, when in fact, in 2007 the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that type 1 diabetes was revered in humans using their own stem cells (Adult Stem Cells-ASCs). Why the brewhaha then about ESCs in mice, when ASCs have already to be shown to work in humans? It’s important to note that the public believes that universities hold a place in society like churches, in that they have no worldly concerns, hence what ever they report must be accurate. This is of course not the case in stem cell biology, as many of these university departments are ferociously filing patents on their stem cell discoveries. These patents often represent technologies that very aggressively alter cells because the more the cell is altered, the stronger the patent. These patents obviously represent a business interest, as there’s only one reason to hold a patent-financial. It’s not hard to see then why these science departments are so aggressive about getting media for discoveries, as like businesses, they want to promote their product in the best light possible. The media, with it’s 24 hour news cycle, often doesn’t take the time to dig to find out if the claim is true, kind of true, or a big misrepresentation. Their focus is simply pumping out stories to attract reader eyeballs and there’s nothing like a “stem cell first” to get eyeballs glued to a story. In addition, since ASCs are less “patentable” and often represent surgical procedures (like the Brazilian study above in humans) and can’t be mass produced like drugs, they often garner less attention as there is much less of a big business interest to file overly aggressive press releases. The upshot? The next time you see a “stem cell first”, take it with a grain of salt, as it’s likely not. In addition, it’s time to recognize that university stem cell science departments and institutes are big business interests who want to promote their products, not the clergy. There’s nothing wrong with “University Inc.”, just as long as everybody recognizes that the university has a financial conflict.