Wednesday, May 18, 2016

A "Chicken in Every Pot" -- Stem Cells and the Latest Warnings About Hype

Let's face it, folks, without some hype, California's $3 billion stem cell research effort would not exist.

That's because it is a creature of a popular vote in 2004, and the Golden State's voters needed to be persuaded to pony up their billions for something that they were told would pay off and pay off relatively quickly.

Old news, right? But not entirely. Last week the world's foremost stem cell research organization, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), issued stern warnings about "communications" involving stem cell research. "Circumspect and restrained" were the watchwords from the more than 4,000-member group. Seek "timely corrections" of misleading information in the media, the world's stem cell researchers were told, among other things.

All of which is interesting coming from the ISSCR, which loaned its considerable clout in 2004 to the $36 million effort to convince Californians to create the state's stem cell agency with billions borrowed by the state. The effort was also endorsed by a host of individual, top researchers. The campaign is widely regarded as over-promising results on an unrealistic timetable. (See here and here.)

That said, electoral campaigns are not science. Think about promises of a "chicken in every pot," and you will have a good idea of what needs to be said to win an election. And there's the rub.

To generate cash from citizens, it is necessary to create some excitement. Otherwise, it is ho-hum time. One Canadian writer, Kelly Crowe, put it this way in a piece on the public relations guidelines from the ISSCR,
"Would you read a story if this was the headline: 'New study raises questions about an experimental treatment that might not work and won't be ready for a long time.'"
Beyond public perceptions, there is the small matter of stimulating business interest in turning stem cell research into cures, the mission of the California stem cell agency. Businesses are often portrayed as daring innovators bringing fresh, exciting stuff to all of our homes. The reality is that businesses are more often timid, unwilling to take risks that might affect their financial well-being.

So they too must be shown the stem cell light by the agency and its backers so that industry will cough up the considerable cash necessary to bring a stem cell therapy to market and fulfill the promises made to voters 12 years ago.

Just how far should stem cell advocates go in promoting their cause? The ISSCR has its new guidelines. Others may disagree. One person's hype is another person's honest belief. It is unlikely that the ISSCR guidelines will settle the questions.

Little doubt exists that stem cell hype is rampant, some of it from the scientific community and some from enterprises offering untested procedures and treatments. The hype has a natural audience. The public tends to want to believe in scientific and medical miracles, and stem cells smack of miracles.

Randy Mills, the president of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), as the agency is formally known, regularly brings the facts of "risk" to his dealings at the agency. It is one of his finer innovations.

Last year, his plan for the agency's next five years contained three pages of "risks," including inadequate health benefits, foot-dragging by the federal regulators and safety issues.

Mills exudes excitement for stem cell research and its potential, but at the same time he has a keen eye for the obstacles. It could be called realism. Unless you see the obstacles, you cannot hurdle them. Nor can the public be expected to be patient if it is oversold and under-delivered. 

(A final note: Kelly Crowe's piece is a dandy and involves much more than stem cell research. The headline: "It's not just stem cell research that's overhyped— medical science spin is a widespread problem.")
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