What was billed as momentous news of the first cloned embryo was PR hype aimed at investors.
The Cloning Game
by Jonathan Cohn
Daily Express, 29 November 2001 [shortened]
On Sunday, a Massachusetts company called Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) announced that it had successfully produced the first cloned human embryo--and that, eventually, embryos like it could produce cells that would cure diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. "We've taken the first step toward what we hope will be a whole new era of medicine," Michael West, the company's founder and president, explained on CNN's "Late Edition." "The idea is to be able to do something we've never been able to do before, as simple as it sounds, to give replacement cells and tissues, like the way we repair a car when it's broken."
It was one of several appearances West would make over the ensuing 24 hours, and it coincided with the publication of several articles. One appeared in a little-known academic publication called the E-biomed: The Journal of Regenerative Medicine. Others graced the cover of Scientific American and U.S. News and World Report, which ran the breathless headline, "The First Human Clone."
But is it really the first human clone? In effect, what West and his colleagues did was to take one person's genes, implant them in an egg donated by another person, and get that egg to divide ... twice. Then the egg died. The researchers didn't invent new technology, nor did they stretch the bounds of what the scientific community already understood could take place. Anyway, the real trick with cloning is getting an embryo to divide into dozens, even hundreds, of cells. Since ACT's team fell well short of that goal and since the reasons for the failure remain unclear, their experiment represents just one step--and a pretty meager step at that. Imagine if NASA had announced in 1963 it won the race to the moon because it has successfully gotten a rocket ship to blow up on the launching pad, and you start to grasp the kind of development to which we've all been made privy.
Whatever its scientific significance, though, ACT's announcement is important for what it says about the way we are conducting this sort of research--and how it may go awry. It was no accident, after all, that West and his colleagues managed to generate such buzz. As West later acknowledged to The New York Times' Gina Kolata (one of the few reporters to greet the announcement with appropriate skepticism), ACT deliberately by-passed the prestigious peer-review journals like Science and Nature in order to find an academic outlet that would agree to publish the study simultaneously with U.S. News. And it seems likely ACT had additional motive for avoiding the big journals:
"To put it bluntly," says Arthur Caplan, a well-known bioethicist from the University of Pennsylvania, "I don't think this would get published in the top tier journals." Even the timing of the announcement was convenient--maybe too convenient. By "releasing the study on Thanksgiving Sunday, when all the science journalists were eating turkey," notes Glenn McGee, editor of the American Journal of Bioethics, ACT likely avoided many of the producers and writers who would have greeted the announcement with a cocked eyebrow.