Stem Cells are Dangerously Overhyped, Warn Researchers

Sometimes a story is too good to be true.

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May 12 2016, 12:00pm

Creating a stem cell bank. Image: California Institute for Regenerative Medicine

In my career as a science journalist, I've met patients suffering from devastating spinal cord injuries who've travelled abroad, to Taiwan and China, to pay for experimental stem cell transplants—believing these treatments could save them. The reality is that science does not yet support such treatments, and they cost a fortune. There's a cost in overhyping stem cells, but the media has been touting their benefits for years and years.

In a new paper, published Thursday in Science, a team of authors says it's time for everyone—from the media, to press officers, to journal publishers and even the scientists themselves—to chill out about stem cells. They aren't a miracle cure.

Stem cells are, in and of themselves, miraculous little things. They can transform into virtually any type of cell in the body, and research suggests they could one day be used to treat various illnesses. In fact, they're already used effectively against a small number of conditions, like leukemia, where patients can undergo a bone marrow transplant.

But the vast majority of stem cell treatments aren't ready for prime time.

Even so, if the media is to be believed, stem cells have the potential to cure baldness, restore eyesight, and cure creaky joints, not to mention putting an end to different types of cancer, diabetes, and heart failure. Both Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning have reportedly undergone stem cell treatments. No wonder that clinics are springing up around the world, offering unproven "stem cell therapies" to anyone who'll pay.

"Over the last ten to 12 years, it's become a cultural phenomenon, and their efficacy is almost taken for granted," said Tim Caulfield, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, and is an author of the new report.

"You have these portrayals of sports stars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Rafael Nadal getting stem cell therapies, and it's treated [in the media] like it's a given."

Enthusiasm and "optimistic speculation" can be a positive thing for research, the paper says, because it can boost funding and attract much-needed attention. But too much hype creates a very real risk of "misleading the public, misinforming policy debates, devaluing methodical approaches to research, and driving premature or unwarranted clinical use," it says.

Caulfield argues that it isn't just the media that's to blame. There's a "hype pipeline" in place, he told me, that puts more and more spin on a story as it moves from the lab to the newsroom, and then out into the world. It starts with researchers, who are subject to their own set of career and publication pressures, and then moves to the media relations teams and on and on. Social media can distort the picture even further.

In its new set of guidelines, which address the overly positive portrayal of stem cells in the media, the International Society for Stem Cell Research puts some of the burden to correct the picture on scientists themselves. According to Science, it urges them to work for accurate and balanced reporting, and to collaborate with communications officers on press releases.

Scientists should also avoid talking about economic impact and development horizons—although these are exactly the types of questions us science writers like to ask. Whenever someone reads about a new therapy or treatment, they (very understandably) want to know when it will be available to the public. And when I ask these questions, researchers often tell me "it could be five to ten years," but the real answer is that, often, we just don't know.

Science exists to "generate knowledge," the paper says, not necessarily to cure every patient of disease (although that is hopefully an offshoot). It's a nuance we all need to remember when it comes to stem cells—not to mention the microbiome, gene editing, and other fields that are becoming absolutely rife with hype. The cost is real.