Journalistic Hype of Investigator Hype?

Biopolitical Times
an embryo

At the opening of this year’s Annual Meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research on June 14, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, a prominent developmental biologist at Cambridge and Caltech, announced in a plenary address that: 

“We can create human embryo-like models by the reprogramming of [embryonic stem] cells.”

Her remarks were reported by 2:30 pm EST by Hannah Devlin of The Guardian, who had interviewed Zernicka-Goetz beforehand, under the headline “Synthetic human embryos created in groundbreaking advance.” Devlin quoted Robin Lovell-Badge, who was quick to press the narratives that “the science in this field has outpaced the law” and that new legislation is urgently needed.

But just how “groundbreaking” was this? And what in fact did the researchers create? Even Lovell-Badge noted in The Guardian that similar mouse embryos had failed to develop and “it’s going to be hard to tell whether there’s an intrinsic problem with them or whether it’s just technical.”

There are additional reasons to rein in the “breakthrough” rhetoric. This startling story came in the wake of public discussions of in vitro derived human gametes (IVG) as a reproductive technology, as well as reports of the first “three-parent babies” along with surprising research that casts doubt on the practical feasibility of such techniques to circumvent mitochondrial disease.

But newspaper editors were primed to jump on hopeful news, and over the next several days developments multiplied. Devlin followed up an hour after her first report with an analysis piece, headlined:

Advances in synthetic embryos leave legislators needing to catch up

Note how the first report of an unconfirmed technical advance led immediately to discussion by the reporter of the necessity for changes in the law. All this was apparently too much for at least some of the seven co-authors of the paper Zernicka-Goetz announced. Bailey Weatherbee, listed as first author, tweeted the next day that:

In light of recent press coverage which has unfortunately sensationalized our unpublished results, we feel it is necessary to provide a version of our data as soon as possible.

The June 15 preprint they posted at is titled “Transgene directed induction of a stem cell-derived human embryo model.” Weatherbee continued:

Unfortunately, we are restricted in our capacity to share the most up to date version of the manuscript. However, we look forward to discussing the peer reviewed, final version very soon. … Importantly, this is not an embryo and does not reconstitute all aspects of embryo development, including morphology. … [T]he goal of the field has always been to develop tools to aid in understanding development and elucidating potential drivers of pregnancy loss. … I hope stronger engagement and regulation will reassure the public.

Zernicka-Goetz took the same line in an interview with Scientific American:

It’s not an embryo—it’s an embryolike structure. Or in other words, we can call it a model of a human embryo. It’s three-dimensional, its architecture is beautiful, and it’s very powerful in understanding the causes for pregnancy loss at the time of implantation. But it’s not a real embryo.

Guillaume Levrier, a French political scientist with a focus on genome regulation, discussed this work on France24_en (in English) and posted the clips on Twitter:

Main takeaways are 1 those are not to be qualified as synthetic embryos and 2 policymakers shouldn't react to claims made in conferences. … 

Meanwhile, in a move too well timed to be coincidental, a team headed by Jacob Hanna (a long-term rival researcher) also posted a preprint on June 15, titled “Transgene-Free Ex Utero Derivation of A Human Post-Implantation Embryo Model Solely from Genetically Unmodified Naive PSCs.” Hanna, like Zernicka-Goetz, Weatherbee and Carlos W Gantner (another co-author), has applied for patent(s) and, unlike his rivals, “is a chief scientific adviser of Renewal Bio Ltd. that has licensed technologies described herein and sponsored some parts of this project.” Renewal Bio was described by Antonio Regalado in MIT Technology Review last year as “on a journey to the horizon of science and ethics.”

Philip Ball, a prolific and experienced science writer, was actually on this issue even before the latest news broke: He published a substantial piece in Quanta on June 13:

‘Embryo Models’ Challenge Legal, Ethical and Biological Concepts
With embryolike constructs built entirely from stem cells, researchers can revolutionize our understanding of development. But how close to an embryo is too close?

He updated that piece on June 15th, and on the 16th published an overview in Nature:

Most advanced synthetic human embryos yet spark controversy
A pair of studies raises ethical and legal questions about the status of lab-grown human embryo models.

Ball specifically discusses ethical concerns, notably the widely accepted rule that human embryos should not be cultured in the lab beyond 14 days, which is the law in many countries. However, he explains, embryo models using ‘induced’ stem cells derived from adult tissues are not governed by such rules. These experiments arguably fall outside legislation, but probably should not. (In May, Ball had questioned in Nature whether the world’s regulators can “keep pace” with developments in genome editing and embryo research, though he overlooked widespread existing prohibitions on heritable genome editing.) Moreover, some scientists are very skeptical of the feasiblity of extended development of embryo-like models in the lab. Ball reports that Professor Alfonso Martinez Arias, a developmental biologist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Spain, would be surprised if such models can develop to 21 days or beyond.

Arias severely criticized the Guardian report and analyzed the Weatherbee et al. preprint in a long twitter thread on the 16th. He went into less detail about the Hanna paper but did say that, unlike the Zernicka-Goetz one, it “represents a clear advance.” He concluded (in three tweets):

I thought we had learnt the lessons of how to announce discoveries about human biology after the He Jiankui affair but apparently we have some way to go. 

We have a duty to make sure the public understands what we do and that, as it has happened here, are not led to believe that a major breakthrough has happened when it hasn’t. 

Embryology, DevBio are complex parts of biology but we need to help the public understand them because they are an integral part of our society as much as AI or CRISPR. 

Also on Friday the 16th, the University of Cambridge’s Cambridge Reproduction initiative announced a partnership with the Progress Educational Trust (PET) to develop the Governance of Stem Cell-Based Embryo Models (G-SCBEM) project. The goal is to produce a clear and comprehensive recommended governance framework for research using SCBEMs, and to “lay the groundwork for engaging the public and other stakeholders.” 

On Sunday the 18th, right before our deadline – there may already be more analysis – Devlin published yet another report from the ISSCR Annual Meeting in The Guardian:

Model embryo with heartbeat replicates cells in early pregnancy
Exclusive: Scientists used stem cells to create the structures, which were unable to develop into a foetus

“The findings are yet to be published as either a preprint or a peer-reviewed journal paper,” the article notes. Robin Lovell-Badge is once again quoted as saying that such structures should be treated differently from embryos “because they could not possibly develop to be implanted to form a child.” The impossible, of course, always takes a little longer.

Journalism is an integral part of our society, but it is important to be clear about the difference between reporting and advocacy. Presumably that is why The Guardian decided to publish two separate articles on the 14th, albeit only an hour apart and by the same author, which rather blurs the distinction. In the second, she called for legislative action, while in the first she merely quoted Robin Lovell-Badge saying that “people are worried” about the current state of UK legislation. Lovell-Badge is by no means an advocate of limiting the research, he is the most prominent British advocate for preparing for the legalization of embryo editing. Controversy, they say, sells newspapers. And favorable publicity is good for scientists seeking grants.

In short, a scientist colleague explained, what we are seeing here is an extended exercise in journalistic hype of investigator hype.