Critic Alleges Deceit in Study On Stem Cells

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 26, 2006

A landmark scientific report that was supposed to bridge the gap between proponents and opponents of human embryonic stem cell research has become the focus of an escalating feud, with a prominent critic of the research alleging that scientists were deceptive in presenting their results.

At issue is a series of experiments described in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature, in which scientists at Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) in Worcester, Mass., described a method for making stem cells without harming a human embryo. The basic facts of the report remain unchallenged.

But in an unusual move yesterday, Nature corrected wording in a lay-language news release it had distributed in advance and posted clarifying data it had asked the scientists to provide.

At the core of the battle is a widely distributed e-mail from Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who raised three issues.

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. It is well established that a single cell can be removed from an eight-cell human embryo without causing any apparent harm to the embryo, and the new report aimed only to show that such single cells can become stem cells, lead researcher Robert Lanza said yesterday. In the experiments, the scientists took as many cells as they could from each embryo, destroying them in the process, to make the most of the embryos donated for their study.

Doerflinger said it was also deceptive for the scientists to say that single embryo cells were coaxed to grow into colonies of stem cells. In the experiment, he noted, those single cells were allowed to feed on hormones secreted by other cells in the nutrient media in which they were grown. That leaves open the question, he said, of whether a single cell can become a colony on its own.

Lanza responded that the need for hormones from surrounding cells can easily be met by culturing the single cell with laboratory cells or even the remaining, seven-cell embryo for a day, after which experiments indicate the single cells can be weaned and grow into stem cells alone.

A third point of contention is the fact that the published report includes a photo of a mature embryo, healthy and poised to grow into a fetus after having survived the removal of a single cell. Doerflinger said the photo is deceptive because no embryos in the experiment were allowed to develop that far.

Lanza said that the team first did those experiments to prove embryos could survive the biopsy process but that only the photo -- and not the data -- was included because that was not the point of the paper. Data from those earlier experiments were added to Nature's Web site yesterday.

In his e-mail, Doerflinger said the use of the photo in a paper describing research in which no embryos survived was reminiscent of the fraud case that brought down South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk early this year.

Lanza said the criticism is a sign of how politicized stem cell research has become.

"They're really going after everything they can," Lanza said. "They've got the whole machine geared up."

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