One of the Leading Scientists in the World?

Posted by Pete Shanks March 15, 2010
Biopolitical Times

Robert Lanza, Chief Scientific Officer of Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) is not short of self-confidence. His magnum opus (written with Bob Berman) is called Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness Are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe, which he modestly describes it as "a new book that lays out his theory of everything." He's no stranger to puffery and he's recently been described as a "rock star scientist" who bolsters the reputation of ACT. But he may just need all the self-assurance he can muster.

The company, which is routinely described as "struggling," has been notorious for years for "science by press release." So when Lanza and others published a paper in February comparing iPS unfavorably with embryonic stem cells, it was not surprising that ACT boasted that the research was "featured in several leading news media outlets: Scientific American, USA Today and Newsweek." What Lanza told Scientific American, however, was extremely pessimistic:

"We were devastated to find this out," Lanza adds. He notes his company had planned this year to apply to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use red blood cells and platelets derived from iPS cells in clinical trials, but "at this point, therapies with these cells are years off."

Why would Lanza say they were "devastated" when the company's line was that the paper was "supporting the use of ACT’s embryo-safe single blastomere-derived human embryonic stem cell lines, which do not exhibit these problems"? ACT's official position is understandable -- they have intellectual property in ESCs to protect -- but Lanza's is a little surprising. He has previously both praised iPS technology as potentially "one of the Holy Grails of medicine" and highlighted their potential ethical shortcomings. Could it be that he was hoping to jump in front of the iPS bandwagon, perhaps even leaving ACT behind? Or might he have been disingenuous?

Is this the end of ACT? Not so fast. The company's stock price may be trading perilously close to zero, down from $8 a few years ago, but it keeps raising money -- another $2.8 million in November. And two recent government decisions have given them new hope: The NIH proposed in February to expand its definition of human ESCs to include cell lines derived from blastomeres, a move widely seen as benefiting ACT in particular; and in March, the FDA "granted orphan drug designation for the company's MA09-hRPE cells for use in the treatment of Stargardt's Macular Dystrophy (SMD)." That led CEO William Caldwell (who just negotiated himself a base salary of $480,000, with a retention bonus of $100,000) to assert to Bloomberg Radio [mp3 here] that they will eventually also treat the age-related macular degeneration that affects 10 million Americans -- and make big bucks.

So what's going on? It's hard to tell, but a lot may depend on Lanza, whose reputation is squarely on the line. He has pushed his qualifications hard, claiming to be "considered one of the leading scientists in the world" in his bio at the Huffington Post, which opens with this diffident assessment:

"Robert Lanza was taken under the wing of scientific giants such as psychologist B.F. Skinner, immunologist Jonas Salk, and heart transplant pioneer Christiaan Barnard. His mentors described him as a 'genius,' a 'renegade thinker,' even likening him to Einstein himself." - US News & World Report, cover story.

The "cover story" was not on the man himself, but rather part of ACT's extraordinary publicity coup in 2001, when they claimed to have cloned a human embryo, though it failed to develop beyond the six-cell stage. The news of "this ludicrous, outrageous, failed experiment" was published in an obscure on-line journal (from which three board members resigned as a result, one saying it was "of little or no scientific value"), simultaneously with a feature Lanza and colleagues themselves wrote in Scientific American and the US News & World Report story.

Biocentrism may have been intended as Lanza's ticket out of ACT, as well as being the final formulation of ideas he has been mulling for two decades. But it doesn't seem to have worked. His ideas were ridiculed in 1992 and called "kind of dopey" in Wired in 2007, when he published an article in American Scholar, but he finished the book and promoted it with blog posts and articles, some co-written with Deepak Chopra. More ridicule and debunking followed, and the publisher's press page is notably short on serious reviews, though it lists some rather strange references.

Lanza's genuine science is sometimes obscured by his promotional efforts. If he can pull off what ACT is promising, he really will have a claim to be a world-class scientist. So far however, skepticism seems to be in order.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: