Here on Winds of Change.NET, one of the important things our commenters do is error checking. Andy X did just that when he looked at a statement Michael Fumento made in "New York Times Stem Cell Coverup". Here's what Fumento said:
"Wade is flat-out wrong. Although I have read the full paper, you need go no further than the online abstract at PubMed to read that the amniotic stem cells were differentiated "into cell types representing each embryonic germ layer, including cells of adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neuronal and hepatic lineages." Translation: The amniotic cells carry the same potential as embryonic stem cells to become each of the 220 cell types in the human body."
Why does this matter? Because the AFS cells in question were not harvested from a fetus, but from routine amniocentisis tests. If Fumento's characterization is true, the practical rationale for allowing fetal harvesting in future would be gravely damaged. Andy X, however, replied that Fumento was deliberately misrepresenting "Isolation of amniotic stem cell lines with potential for therapy" by Atala et. al., a paper that had received notable media coverage of late (though Fumento is correct, not in the New York Times). Andy X also upheld standards here, and went one step further - he brought evidence to that effect.
If true, that's a very serious charge to make against a science writer, whose credibility in faithfully and accurately reporting scientific developments must remain untarnished. I now have a copy of the full research paper that Fumento says he read, and so we can take a look at Andy X's charge.
Bottom line: what Fumento did certainly looks like misrepresentation to me. Here's why...
Fumento, one more time:
"...you need go no further than the online abstract at PubMed to read that the amniotic stem cells were differentiated "into cell types representing each embryonic germ layer, including cells of adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neuronal and hepatic lineages." Translation: The amniotic cells carry the same potential as embryonic stem cells to become each of the 220 cell types in the human body."
There isn't much ambiguity in that last statement. Problem: here's Paragraph #1 of the research paper Fumento says he read in full, and which is NOT publicly accessible for most readers to check:
"Amniotic fluid is known to contain multiple cell types derived from the developing fetus1,2. Cells within this heterogeneous population can give rise to diverse differentiated cells including those of adipose, muscle, bone and neuronal lineages3-6. We now describe lines of broadly multipotent AFS cells, and use retroviral marking to verify that clonal human AFS cells can give rise to adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neurogenic and hepatic lineages, inclusive of all embryonic germ layers. In this respect, they meet a commonly accepted criterion for pluripotent stem cells, without implying that they can generate every adult tissue. (emphasis mine)"
Case. Open. Shut. Later in the paper, there's this:
"....Despite sharing expression of c-Kit, AFS cells appear clearly distinct from ES cells, germline stem cells and certain adult stem cell populations, such as hematopoietic stem cells, on the basis of differences both in a variety of cell surface markers and in gene expression patterns assessed by transcriptional profiling37. Thus, the role of AFS cells in ontogeny is not yet clear.
AFS cells can serve as precursors to a broad spectrum of differentiated cell types. We used retroviral marking of AFS cell clones to rigorously assess their multipotent character. Cells from a marked clone were induced to differentiate along six distinct lineages (adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neurogenic and hepatic).... Human AFS cells can therefore yield differentiated cells corresponding to each of the three embryonic germ layers. The full range of adult somatic cells to which AFS cells can give rise remains to be determined (emphases mine)."
So Fumento is transparently, provably wrong, and that alone must dent his credibility as a science writer. The public can't read most of the research papers to which his subscriptions et. al. give him access, which means they have to trust his characterizations. What this episode demonstrates is that they can't.
Andy X, meanwhile, is dead-on with his characterization in comment #1:
"So it is misleading, you see, to say that these cells carry the same potential as [Embryonic Stem] cells, which can give rise to all somatic and germ cell types, because this has not yet been determined. What you can say is that they potentially have the potential, but this won't be known until it is tested. Clearly this is a much weaker, but more accurate, statement which does not serve the purposes of your post nearly as well."
Recall Fumento's email:
"I have brought to you the experience of 18 years of accurate science and health writing..."
It may have been. In future, however, a question mark should hang over his words. The only questions left are:
- Does Fumento still have a point re: the potential of AFS cells?
- Did he lie? (and questions 1&2 are connected)
1. Does Fumento still have a point re: the potential of AFS cells?
Yes, I believe he's on strong ground there. Here's a couple more excerpts from the paper by Atala et. al., which discusses the potential upsides of amniotic fluid-derived stem (AFS) cells. The paper also describes successful attempts to grow nerve and bone tissue from those cells, and verify those clonal cells as the source:
"We have demonstrated that stem cells can be obtained routinely from human amniotic fluid, using backup cells from amniocentesis specimens that would otherwise be discarded. The AFS cells grow easily in culture and appear phenotypically and genetically stable. They are capable of extensive self-renewal, a defining property of stem cells. The absence of senescence and maintenance of long telomeres for over 250 p.d. far exceeds the typical ‘Hayflick limit’ of about 50 p.d. for many post-embryonic cells, which generally is attributed to the progressive shortening of telomeres30.... Unlike ES [JK: embryonic stem] cells, AFS cells do not form tumors in vivo. A low risk of tumorigenicity would be advantageous for eventual therapeutic applications.
....AFS cells are able to differentiate along adipogenic, osteogenic, myogenic, endothelial, neurogenic and hepatic pathways. We show the acquisition of lineage-specific functionality by AFS cells differentiated in vitro toward neurons, osteoblasts and hepatocytes....
We conclude that AFS cells are pluripotent stem cells capable of giving rise to multiple lineages including representatives of all three embryonic germ layers. AFS cells hold potential for a variety of therapeutic applications. They are obtained from routine clinical amniocentesis specimens. We have isolated similar stem cell populations from prenatal chorionic villus biopsies and from placental biopsies obtained after full-term pregnancies. In the future, banking of these stem cells may provide a convenient source both for autologous therapy in later life and for matching of histocompatible donor cells with recipients."
That's very good performance, and strongly suggests a broad range of uses. Now, here's an excerpt from Medical News Today's January 7, 2007 coverage of this research paper:
"AFS cells have many advantages:
-- They are easily obtainable
-- As they double every 36 hours they may be grown in large quantities
-- 'Feeders' are not needed to guide them
-- They do not produce tumors
-- Specialized cells generated from AFS cells include all 3 types of cells that exist in the developing embryo - ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm
-- As with embryonic stem cells, AFS cells have the potential of generating every type of adult cell
Atala added that the full range of cells that AFS cells can eventually create remains to be determined. He said his team have managed to produce every cell type they have attempted to, so far (emphasis mine)."
See also the Washington Post's January 8, 2007 article "Scientists See Potential In Amniotic Stem Cells: They Are Highly Versatile And Readily Available", which talks about both the successes to date and some of the caveats. A more in-depth discussion of those caveats is provided over at StemCellPatents.com, whose article notes that:
"This finding, which is supported by previous experimental data, indicates that amniotic fluid may be an ideal source of stem cells for therapeutic purposes. Unfortunately, the number of cells extracted from amniotic fluid is relatively small and not only requires expansion ex vivo, but also tissue matching, which limits availability. Don't be surprised if an industry springs up around "amniotic stem cell harvesting" in the same way that it did around cord blood."
Fumento, from his article, and this time he's on stronger ground:
"Almost six years ago, scientists at Anthrogenesis Corporation announced they'd discovered stem cells that were readily harvestable in great numbers from placenta and convertible into all germ layers. PubMed now lists over 500 articles concerning "placenta" and "stem cells," indicating that a tremendous number of scientists find amniotic/placenta cells to be of tremendous interest even if Nicholas Wade and The New York Times do not."
So, are there alternatives to embryonic stem cells? Clearly, yes. Have they all been explored? Clearly, no. Have these alternatives generated treatments to date, and is their potential apparently growing? Yes.
Does Fumento have a point re: AFS cells and their potential, therefore, even if proper qualifications are added to his work? Yes. It's not a debate-ending point, but there is a real history of success here. As for the Atala paper, the field is not new but the results are an important success, and they definitely add to the strength of the anti-embryonic stem cell position.
On a larger canvas, the core argument pairs the obvious ethical risks of fetal tissues as a commodity with the point that other options are showing success, and should at the very least be fully explored before we turn to such an ethically risky (ES) alternative. Does the Atala paper strengthen this argument? Not to a debate-ending level, but yes it does and it would be foolish or dishonest to deny that.
2. Did Fumento Lie?
So, Fumento's enthusiasm for AFS was based on some solid ground. Which nevertheless brings us to the linked question - did Michael Fumento intentionally misrepresent the article, i.e. did he lie to his readers? Andy X offers his take in comment #2, after spending his first comment noting quotes in the research paper that contradicted Fumento's characterization:
"So, you either 1) Didn't read the full article, but said you did anyway (i.e., LIE), or 2) Read it but conveniently ignored, missed or purposefully left out the more detailed explanation that didn't support your claim (i.e, LIED). I'm open to credible alternative interpretations...if you (or anyone else) have the ability to provide any."
Andy X is dead wrong here on a critical point - there's a huge difference between conveniently ignoring or purposefully leaving out contradictory material (which amounts to the same thing and is lying), as opposed to simply missing something, or seeing other material in the article that led him to his conclusion.
Now, missing something so fundamental, that appears multiple times in a paper, is itself very damaging to a professional science writer. But it is misleading, you see, to say that this constitutes lying. What you can say with certainty is that Fumento is wrong, and is potentially lying, but this is difficult to know. Clearly this is a much weaker, but more accurate, statement which does not serve the purposes of Andy's comment #2 nearly as well.
It is possible that the additional materials I've pointed to re: the method's record of success (note Atala's quote above re: the cells working for everything they've tried thus far), plus the use of the term "pluripotent" in the research paper's concluding paragraph rather than "multipotent," could lead an ideologically-invested individual to genuinely miss the paper's qualifications and make the statement Fumento made.
Using a "reasonable doubt" standard, I believe Fumento would be absolved of the charge of deliberate misrepresentation (i.e. lying).
The thing is, Fumento is an experienced science writer with, as he reminds us, many articles and books to his credit. What he said is about major, fundamental point in the debate, and his characterization is easily disproven with little effort... IF one has access to the research article itself, which is not publicly available. Furthermore, his bombastic refusal to engage with Andy X's evidence-based points makes one justifiably suspicious. By Fumento's own standards, as (correctly) applied to the New York Times in his work, his writing was dishonest - reflecting his agenda first and the truth second or not at all. If one uses a "balance of probabilities" standard, I believe he's guilty of dishonesty as charged.
For Mr. Fumento, however, it's worse than that. Working life isn't a "reasonable doubt" place. Or even a "balance of probabilities" place. Rather the reverse - if Fumento raises reasonable doubts concerning his credibility, that can and should be reflected in a reduced ability to get himself published in and invited to respected magazines, journals, and forums. A field that lives for The Habit of Truth as its foremost ideal - despite the flawed humanity of its participants, and the rising level of politically-motivated lying one wades through these days.
Fumento has spent a number of years going after some of that lying, and done us all a service thereby. A common regard for fact is necessary if we hope to have the debate and discussions we all need to have - in all debates, but especially so in science-related debates.
Unfortunately, I believe that the evidence adduced above leads to the conclusion that Fumento has now raised a reasonable doubt and more concerning his own credibility, honesty, and accuracy as a science reporter.
That's always a sad thing - but it would be sadder still were we to let it pass.
- "Isolation of amniotic stem cell lines with potential for therapy" by Paolo De Coppi, Georg Bartsch Jr, M Minhaj Siddiqui, Tao Xu, Cesar C Santos, Laura Perin, Gustavo Mostoslavsky, Angeline C Serre, Evan Y Snyder, James J Yoo, Mark E Furth, Shay Soker & Anthony Atala. January 2007 issue of Nature Biotechnology, Vol. 25, pp. 100-106 doi:10.1038/nbt1274. Note: the full article requires purchase.
- Fumento.com - "Boo hoo, poor me!" [paraphrased, as he claims dishonesty] Pretty rich from a guy who lacks the honesty, or the guts, to link to the piece he complains about as it criticizes his work. To me, that's the gold-plated sign of a fake.