Friday, September 01, 2006

The Hooha Over ACT: A Case Study in Stem Cell PR

Whatever the scientific merits of Advanced Cell Technology's embryonic stem cell procedure announced last week, critics around the world are flaying the California company.

At the same time, the field of ESC research is taking a hit as opponents use ACT as an example of why science can't be trusted. Parsing the ACT announcement, several press releases, the conduct of Nature magazine and mainstream media reports is a bit convoluted. It is clear, however, that some of the critics do not understand what ACT has done with its experiment.

The episode is a good of example what can happen when the ravening media sees a weakness. The ACT case is not quite a blood feast, but it does have some of the early earmarks. And it is a fine case study for those involved in stem cell public relations, which is just about everybody in the field.

Lesson No. 1 – Idiot proof your press releases. If it can be misinterpreted, it will be. Run those media handouts by several persons who can serve as surrogate reporters. If they can't figure it out, neither can your average ink-stained wretch.

Lesson No. 2 – Clearly delineate the "facts." Separate them from the implications and assume that reporters will have difficulty distinguishing the two.

Lesson No. 3 – Watch the hyperbole.

Lesson No. 4 – Simplify but do not ignore the nuances. Do not assume knowledge. Some science reporters may be able to describe IVF without a crib sheet, but many cannot. As for non-specialized reporters and editors, they need even more help. Give it to them.

Interestingly, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Sacramento Bee apparently have not yet carried stories on the hooha about the handling of the ACT experiment. Here are some links to other reports: NBC, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer/San Jose Mercury News, BizzyBlog, Bioedge, the Australian, Wired, The Scientist, New Scientist, Ace of Spades and TCSDaily.


  1. Anonymous5:35 PM

    I just wonder if you're not giving ACT too much credit here. It seems like they knowingly let people think they had created two stem cell lines without destroying embryos when they didn't; and even now they continue to let people think they created those stem cell lines from SINGLE blastomeres, when they didn't (they cultured multiple blastomeres from the same embryo together, meaning their study does not demonstrate that a single cell can be cultured to a stem cell line). It looks like pure PR to raise money on the stock market, and I suppose it worked. But it's not about failing to watch out for hyperbole, etc. The hyperbole was the whole point for them.

  2. I was not commenting on the validity of the ACT claims but on the flap concerning them. Any business that puts out press releases has to be instantly suspected of hyperbole as does CIRM and the president of the United States. Favorable publicity may seem beneficial, but the cost of excessive rhetoric can be exceedingly high.

  3. Please note that the New York Times did publish on Sept. 2 a story on the problems with the Nature press release about the ACT work. See for example the post on IPBiz.

    The article by Nicholas Wade did NOT address the point made by Anonymous (above) that the single removed cell (blastomere) was NOT alone in the Petri dish. Without commenting on the VALIDITY of the ACT claims, this is a piece of information that might be discussed in the flap / hooha surrounding the ACT claims.

    The article by Wade also did not address the point raised in the Philadelphia Inquirer article that ACT was separately dissembling about the "blastocyst survival" issue.

    As a separate matter, David Magnus of Stanford seems to think that dissembling by a small private company is foreseeable and thus constitutes an argument for public funding, federal and/or state. To date, the greatest fraud in the embryonic stem cell area was done by the publicly-funded Hwang Woo-Suk. Hwang's co-author on the now-retracted 2006 paper in Science was Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, who receives federal funds for embryonic stem cell research (such funds did not support the Hwang research). At the time the fraud was discovered, a key player in the fraud had gone from Korea to Pittsburgh, to enjoy the benefits of funding in the U.S.

  4. Anonymous1:02 PM

    What other cells were in the the dish culture? You fail to mention this, only make accusations.

    This seems to be a truly valuable accomplishment. It directs the debate to the fact that humans are not one cell creatures. It also points out that the 1000 or so babies born after a blastomere was removed did just fine.

    NOT REPORTED in the MEDIA. ACT pointed this out in their press release. Is this anything other than a paranoid greedy smear job and CYA kissing reporters?? NO.

  5. Note that in the discussion of the ACT flap (note above post titled: Senators Scold Visibily Shaken Lanza), we can find some answers to "what other cells." For example, Reuters reported: And no cell lines were created from single cells, but instead created by incubating several cells together. Further, the groups of embryo-derived cells were cultured with mouse feeder cells. These are not "accusations" but rather facts that were omitted in the press releases by both Nature and ACT. More information is available here.

    If John were more aware of the facts, he would not accuse others of "accusations."