Following up on great expectations for stem cell clinical trials

Time Magazine follows up on Advanced Cell Technology's upcoming clinical trials for embryonic stem cell treatments for macular degeneration and dystrophy by finding a participant, a 26-year-old woman who was blinded by Stargardt macular dystrophy since age 12, and her doctor. It's a powerful story about the last hope for this woman to possibly regain her sight through these groundbreaking trials beginning in July. Unfortunately, while the Time story was a well-written review of all the issues surrounding embryonic stem cell therapy, and this particular trial, the headline fell into the same old habit the media have of hyperbole and hype in medical news.

When the mainstream media latch on to a story about medical innovation, unfortunately words like "miracle" and "cure" fly around. And while the hype does initially make for some decent interest among the general public, especially those who have the disease against which the "miracle cure" is aimed, it also usually makes for a pretty big letdown when the slow pace of real science takes over. Then the headlines are usually negative ("whatever happened to this so-called 'miracle cure?'") and the media are on to the next thing.

The Time article does contain the responsible "fine print" on miracle cures, particularly some of the unknowns of ESC therapy, such as their habit of unpredictably growing and forming some odd clusters. Advanced Cell Technology is taking no chances, Time reports, and has developed a test that would detect a single stray stem cell.

But you have to wait until the very last paragraph of the story to sober up after the "miracle cure" headline. Time quotes Dr. Steven Schwartz, an eye doctor at UCLA, as saying that these trials are only a beginning. "Realistically, he doesn't anticipate that early participants will regain their vision completely, nor do the spinal-cord experts expect their patients to walk again after getting the treatments. But if the therapies are safe, then scientists can start figuring out when to intervene with the cells to do the most good."

- read the report in Time