Name-calling gets stem-cell researcher into hot water

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If you ever find yourself called from the lab bench to testify on a contentious topic, here's a cautionary tale: a prominent stem-cell researcher is this week licking his wounds after being accused of misleading the Australian public over the potential of embryonic stem-cell research.

Alan Trounson, who directs a developmental-biology centre at Monash University in Melbourne, has been widely denounced in the news media for a technical inaccuracy made during briefings to members of parliament. Opponents of the research rounded on the error as evidence that scientists were wilfully misrepresenting their findings.

“As a scientist whose integrity has been put at stake by people with an axe to grind, it has been terrible for me, and the impact on my family has been awful,” says a drained Trounson, who was hospitalized last week for a heart condition.

Trounson showed parliamentarians a video of the recovery of a paralysed rat following injection of what he said were human embryonic stem cells. But the cells were embryonic germ cells — strictly speaking, cells from the parts of 5–9-week-old embryos and fetuses from which eggs and sperm later form. Embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that are just a few days old. The video was taken at the lab of John Gearhart, a biologist at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, but the experiment's results have yet to be published.

Although Trounson acknowledges the error, he defends his actions. “Embryonic germ cells had never been explained to these parliamentarians before, so I simplified and just called them embryonic stem cells,” he says. “This is not absolutely correct, but they are embryonic and they are stem cells and you can't tell the difference between them.”

Several biologists have jumped to Trounson's defence. But he advises others to step gingerly when providing information to politicians. “Be very careful about taking these matters forward unless you get a professional organization to help you, in terms of handling the media and the politics,” he says. “You just can't do it yourself.”

Australia is currently looking at legislation to regulate human cloning and stem-cell research. Last week, parliament voted to pass a blanket ban on human cloning and to defer the vote on embryonic stem-cell research until later this month.

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Dennis, C. Name-calling gets stem-cell researcher into hot water. Nature 419, 4 (2002) doi:10.1038/419004a

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