CNN's Koppel uncritically reported GOP argument that new research moots stem cell debate
Research ››› ››› BRIAN LEVY
On the June 7 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, during a segment on Congress' passage of a bill expanding federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, host Wolf Blitzer noted that President Bush had suggested that a recent breakthrough in which scientists reprogrammed skin cells in mice "could change the whole debate" by "creating, in effect, the equivalent of embryonic stem cells by another procedure that wouldn't require destroying these human embryos." Blitzer went on to ask CNN congressional correspondent Andrea Koppel about Congress' reaction to this scientific development. Koppel replied that during the House debate over the bill, Republicans talked about "the fact that you could use the skin cells from mice." But the scientists who published the findings did not find that mouse skin cells could be used to create human stem cells. To the contrary, they have warned that the process might not work with human cells, and several news reports noted that adapting the process could take a significant amount of time. Moreover, neither Koppel nor Blitzer noted that these scientists have expressed their support for the bill that the House passed.
A June 7 Washington Post article reported on the scientists' findings:
Three teams of scientists said yesterday they had coaxed ordinary mouse skin cells to become what are effectively embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos in the process -- an advance that, if it works with human cells, could revolutionize stem cell research and quench one of the hottest bioethical controversies of the decade.
In work being published today, the scientists describe a method for turning back the biological clocks of skin cells growing in laboratory dishes. Thus rejuvenated, the cells give rise to daughter cells that are able to become all the parts needed to make a new mouse.
The Post went on to note that the scientists "called for Congress to pass the bill" and "cautioned that their success with mouse cells does not guarantee quick success with human cells":
The findings have generated tumult on Capitol Hill, where the House is set to vote today on a bill that would loosen President Bush's 2001 restrictions on the use of human embryos in stem cell research.
Acutely aware that their new work could undermine that key political goal, the scientists cautioned that their success with mouse cells does not guarantee quick success with human cells. They called for Congress to pass the bill, which would give federally funded researchers access to embryos slated for destruction at fertility clinics.
On the June 7 edition of NBC's Today, NBC chief science correspondent Robert Bazell reported that, because it is not yet known whether the procedure will work with humans, the potential new cells are not substitutes for embryonic stem cells: "[T]he scientists themselves, and many others, say they are a long way from resolving the ethical debate because their work has been done only with mice." NBC aired a quote from the senior author of one of the stem cell papers, Dr. Konrad Hochedlinger, in which Hochedlinger said, "I would say at this point we don't know whether it works in humans. So it -- we are far from having a therapy using this new approach." Similarly, a June 7 New York Times article noted that "scientists say they cannot predict when they can overcome the considerable problems in adapting the method to human cells."
Koppel reported that the Democrats responded to the Republicans' "argument" "by saying it's sort of coincidental that, every time there's one of these big votes, we get a big story like this about breakthrough in research on stem cells."
From the June 7 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:
KOPPEL: And a recent CNN/Opinion Research poll shows a majority of Americans are in the Democrats' corner, something Colorado's [Rep.] Diana DeGette [D], whose 13-year-old daughter, Francesca, has diabetes, predicts could cost Republicans the next time voters go to the polls.
DeGETTE [video clip]: In the past election in 2006, we won at least two Senate seats in large part because of this research, and 14 House seats. Fourteen Democrats replaced anti-stem-cell Republicans.
KOPPEL: Now, once the president vetoes the bill, over in the Senate, leadership aides on both sides of the aisle say that the override vote would be razor-thin, perhaps falling short by a vote. Over in the House, Republicans are confidently predicting they have the votes there to sustain the president's veto.
BLITZER: The president, as you know, Andrea, is suggesting that this potential breakthrough that scientists are now talking about, of creating, in effect, the equivalent of embryonic stem cells by another procedure that wouldn't require destroying these human embryos, that that could change this whole debate. What are they saying on the Hill?
KOPPEL: Well, certainly, it was one of the arguments that we did hear some Republicans mention today. The fact that you could use the -- the -- the skin cells from mice. That was one argument.
But Democrats responded by saying it's sort of coincidental that every time there's one of these big votes, we get a big story like this about breakthrough in research on stem cells -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Andrea Koppel, watching this important story for us. Thank you.
From the June 7 edition of NBC's Today:
BAZELL: Scientists have high hopes embryonic stem cells might treat many diseases, including Parkinson's and diabetes, although that is yet to be proved.
Until now the scientists could only make embryonic stem cells with eggs and embryos. This research could be the first step toward resolving all the ethical controversy that it's created.
MARIUS WERNIG (postdoctoral researcher): There is no ethical problems with this approach in our eyes, because you basically turn a mature cell into an embryonic cell but you don't destroy life.
BAZELL: But the scientists themselves, and many others, say they are a long way from resolving the ethical debate because their work has been done only with mice.
HOCHEDLINGER: I would say at this point we don't know whether it works in humans. So it -- we are far from having a therapy using this new approach.