Stem-Cell Deceit at the Washington Post

August 26th, 2006 11:53 AM

In the Saturday Washington Post, Rick Weiss skips over his own misreporting of embryonic stem-cell research by Robert Lanza and Advanced Cell Technology. The technique involves removing one cell from an early eight-celled embyro, cultivating the single cell into a new self-replicating line and, in theory, allowing the seven-celled embryo to survive and grow. But despite early reports, including Weiss's, all the embryos were destroyed. Weiss says Nature, which published the Lanza/ACT study, has now "corrected wording in a lay-language news release it had distributed in advance," but he doesn't acknowledge the errors in his own original account.

In today's Critic Alleges Deceit in Study On Stem Cells, Weiss quotes from an email by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Richard Doerflinger:

First, he said the scientists did not make it clear that no embryos survived their experiments. In fact, data in the paper do make that clear, but Nature's initial release said otherwise...

But Weiss didn't make it clear that no embryos survived--his story on Thursday said otherwise:

Lanza and his team started eight months ago with 16 embryos donated by fertility clinic patients. Each embryo consisted of about eight cells. The researchers took not just one cell from each, but as many as they could get -- destroying some of the embryos and ending up with 91 cells.

Having asserted that not all of the embryos were destroyed, Weiss quotes an expert to buttress the case for the research:

"You can honestly say this cell line is from an embryo that was in no way harmed or destroyed," said Ronald M. Green, director of Dartmouth College's Ethics Institute and chief of an ethics panel that ACT convened to assess the experiment before it was done.

Nor does the graphic accompanying the story, both online and in the paper, depict the destruction of embryos in this research.

Confusion in Weiss's original story over the fate of the embryos may explain the strange history of its headline, which read Stem Cells Created With No Harm To Human Embryos in the edition delivered to my home but was changed to New Method Makes Embryo-Safe Stem Cells when I looked it up online. That's a slight improvement but still inaccurate. I'm guessing it was lifted in haste from a late Wednesday night AP file by Matt Crenson as it began to dawn on somebody there was a contradiction between the press release and the study itself.

In today's story, Weiss says it's already well-established that these early eight-celled embryos can survive the removal of one cell, then quotes the mass email from Doerflinger and a direct rebuttal from Lanza about whether it really has been shown that the single cell can replicate itself into a healthy stem-cell line. I'll leave that debate for others. But inquiring minds want to know whether Weiss relied on the faulty press release for his original story, what other source for his misreporting might be responsible, and why the Post is pretending it didn't screw up like everyone else.

Cross-posted at PostWatch. Earlier entries there on this subject are Starting With The Hed, Confusion Over Embryos and Wesley Smith: All Embryos Destroyed In 'Non-Destructive' Technique.