Media matters in spreading the word

Cover of New Yorker article on “The Birth Tissue Profiteers”. Illustration by Ben Jones

When you have a great story to tell the best and most effective way to get it out to the widest audience is still the media, both traditional mainstream and new social media. Recently we have seen three great examples of how that can be done and, hopefully, the benefits that can come from it.

First, let’s go old school. Earlier this month Caroline Chen wrote a wonderful in-depth article about clinics that are cashing in on a gray area in stem cell research. The piece, a collaboration between the New Yorker magazine and ProPublica, focused on the use of amniotic stem cell treatments and the gap between what the clinics who offer it are claiming it can do, and the reality.

Here’s one paragraph profiling a Dr. David Greene, who runs a company providing amniotic fluid to clinics. It’s a fine piece of writing showing how the people behind these therapies blur the lines between fact and reality, not just about the cells but also about themselves:

“Greene said that amniotic stem cells derive their healing power from an ability to develop into any kind of tissue, but he failed to mention that mainstream science does not support his claims. He also did not disclose that he lost his license to practice medicine in 2009, after surgeries he botched resulted in several deaths. Instead, he offered glowing statistics: amniotic stem cells could help the heart beat better, “on average by twenty per cent,” he said. “Over eighty-five per cent of patients benefit exceptionally from the treatment.”

Greene later backpedals on that claim, saying:

“I don’t claim that this is a treatment. I don’t claim that it cures anything. I don’t claim that it’s a permanent fix. All I discuss is maybe, potentially, people can get some improvements from stem-cell care.”

CBS2 TV Chicago

This week CBS2 TV in Chicago did their own investigative story about how the number of local clinics offering unproven and unapproved therapies is on the rise. Reporter Pam Zekman showed how misleading newspaper ads brought in people desperate for something, anything, to ease their arthritis pain.

She interviewed two patients who went to one of those clinics, and ended up out of pocket, and out of luck.

“They said they would regenerate the cartilage,” Patricia Korona recalled. She paid $4500 for injections in her knee, but the pain continued. Later X-rays were ordered by her orthopedic surgeon.

He found bone on bone,” Korona said. “No cartilage grew, which tells me it failed; didn’t work.”

John Zapfel paid $14,000 for stem cell injections on each side of his neck and his shoulder. But an MRI taken by his current doctor showed no improvement.

“They ripped me off, and I was mad.” Zapfel said.      

TV and print reports like this are a great way to highlight the bogus claims made by many of these clinics, and to shine a light on how they use hype to sell hope to people who are in pain and looking for help.

At a time when journalism seems to be increasingly under attack with accusations of “fake news” it’s encouraging to see reporters like these taking the time and news outlets devoting the resources to uncover shady practices and protect vulnerable patients.

But the news isn’t all bad, and the use of social media can help highlight the good news.

That’s what happened yesterday in our latest CIRM Facebook Live “Ask the Stem Cell Team” event. The event focused on the future of stem cell research but also included a really thoughtful look at the progress that’s been made over the last 10-15 years.

We had two great guests, UC Davis stem cell researcher and one of the leading bloggers on the field, Paul Knoepfler PhD; and David Higgins, PhD, a scientist, member of the CIRM Board and a Patient Advocate for Huntington’s Disease. They were able to highlight the challenges of the early years of stem cell research, both globally and here at CIRM, and show how the field has evolved at a remarkable rate in recent years.

Paul Knoepfler

Naturally the subject of the “bogus clinics” came up – Paul has become a national expert on these clinics and is quoted in the New Yorker article – as did the subject of the frustration some people feel at what they consider to be the too-slow pace of progress. As David Higgins noted, we all think it’s too slow, but we are not going to race recklessly ahead in search of something that might heal if we might also end up doing something that might kill.

David Higgins

A portion of the discussion focused on funding and, in particular, what happens if CIRM is no longer around to fund the most promising research in California. We are due to run out of funding for new projects by the end of this year, and without a re-infusion of funds we will be pretty much closing our doors by the end of 2020. Both Paul and David felt that could be disastrous for the field here in California, depriving the most promising projects of support at a time when they needed it most.

It’s probably not too surprising that three people so closely connected to CIRM (Paul has received funding from us in the past) would conclude that CIRM is needed for stem cell research to not just survive but thrive in California.

A word of caution before you watch: fashion conscious people may be appalled at how my pocket handkerchief took on a life of its own.

How the Ice Bucket Challenge changed the fight against ALS

Ice Bucket2

200 people in Boston take the Ice Bucket Challenge: Photo courtesy Forbes

A couple of years ago millions of people did something they probably never thought they would: they dumped a bucket of ice cold water on their head to raise awareness about a disease most of them had probably never heard of, and almost certainly knew very little about.

The disease was ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and the Ice Bucket Challenge was something that went from a fun idea by a supporter of the ALS Association, to a blockbuster $220 million fundraiser. Like any good idea it sparked a backlash with critics accusing it of being a lazy way for people to feel good without actually doing anything, of diverting money from other charities, and even of just wasting water at a time of drought (at least here in California.)

But two years later we can now look back and see if those critics were correct, and if the money raised did make a difference. And the answer, I’m happy to say, is no and yes. In that order.

An article in the New Yorker magazine, by James Surowiecki, takes a look at what has happened since the Ice Bucket Challenge exploded on the scene and it has some good news:

  • Contributions to the ALS Association remain higher than before the Challenge
  • The average age of donors dropped from 50+ to 35
  • The Challenge may have helped spur an increase in overall donations to charity

All this is, of course, excellent news. But there’s an even more important point, which is that the money raised by the Challenge has helped advance ALS research further and faster than ever before.

Barbara Newhouse, the CEO of the ALS Association told Surowiecki:

“The research environment is dramatically different from what it was. We’re seeing research that’s really moving the needle not just on the causes of the disease but also on treatments and therapies.”

As an example Newhouse cites a study, published in Science  last summer, by researchers at Johns Hopkins that helped explain protein clumps found in the brains of people with ALS. Philip Wong, one of the lead authors of the study, says money raised by the Challenge helped make their work possible;

“Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to come out with the studies as quickly as we did. The funding from the ice bucket is just a component of the whole—in part, it facilitated our effort.”

And just this week the ALS Association said funding from the Challenge helped identify a gene connected to the disease.

Having been one of those who took a dunk for science – and we did ours early on, when the Challenge had only raised $4m – it’s nice to know something as silly and simple can have such a profound impact on developing treatments for a deadly disorder.

 

 

CRISPR cluster: How the media spotlight is focusing on gene editing tool

Illustration by Ashley Mackenzie: from New York Times Sunday Magazine

Illustration by Ashley Mackenzie: from New York Times Sunday Magazine

Getting in-depth stories about science in general, and regenerative medicine in particular, into the mainstream media is becoming increasingly hard these days. So when you get one major media outlet doing a really long, thoughtful piece about a potential game-changing gene-editing technology it’s good news. But when you get three major media outlets, all reporting on the same technology, all in the space of less than one week, and all devoting lots of words to the pieces, then it’s really a cause for celebration.

That’s what happened in the last few days with features on the gene editing technology CRISPR in the New York Times Sunday Magazine,  the New Yorker Magazine,  and STAT, a new online health and life-sciences publication produced by the Boston Globe.

Making the story personal

Feng Zhang: photo courtesy of the Broad Institute

Feng Zhang: photo courtesy of the Broad Institute

Each takes a similar approach, focusing on the individuals behind the new approach – Feng Zhang at Harvard/MIT and Jennifer Doudna at the University of California, Berkeley. The fact that the two are involved in a fight over patent rights for the process adds an extra element of friction to a story that already has more than its share of drama.

In the New Yorker, Michael Specter neatly summarizes why so many people are excited about this technology:

“With CRISPR, scientists can change, delete, and replace genes in any animal, including us. Working mostly with mice, researchers have already deployed the tool to correct the genetic errors responsible for sickle-cell anemia, muscular dystrophy, and the fundamental defect associated with cystic fibrosis. One group has replaced a mutation that causes cataracts; another has destroyed receptors that H.I.V. uses to infiltrate our immune system.”

Jennifer Doudna: Photo courtesy of iPSCell.com

Jennifer Doudna: Photo courtesy of iPSCell.com

Sharon Begley in STAT, writes that this discovery could bring cures to some of the deadliest health problems we face, from cancer to Alzheimer’s, but that it also comes with big ethical questions hanging over it:

“He (Zhang) has touched off a global furor over the possibility that a genetics tool he developed could usher in a dystopian age of designer babies.”

Jennifer Kahn in the New York Times Sunday Magazine follows up on that thought, writing about Doudna:

“But she also notes that the prospect of editing embryos so that they don’t carry disease-causing genes goes to the heart of CRISPR’s potential. She has received email from young women with the BRCA breast-cancer mutation, asking whether CRISPR could keep them from passing that mutation on to their children — not by selecting embryos in vitro, but by removing the mutation from the child’s genetic code altogether. ‘‘So at some point, you have to ask: What if we could rid a person’s germ line, and all their future generations, of that risk?’’ Doudna observed. ‘‘When does one risk outweigh another?’’

Each article makes for fascinating reading. Collectively they highlight why CRISPR is such a hot topic, on so many different levels, in science right now.

The topic is going to be the focus of a conference, featuring scientists from the US, Europe and China, being held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington DC the first week of December.

CIRM is also getting involved in the debate and is holding a science-policy workshop on February 4th, 2016 in Los Angeles to consider the future use of genome editing technologies in studies sponsored by CIRM.