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stem cell scientists seize the media agenda on human-animal embryos

Setting up a press briefing a few days before Christmas for a few days after Christmas on an incredibly controversial subject with some of the UK’s most important scientists should have been a nightmare. In fact the opposite was the case for the Science Media Centre after eagled eyed Evan Harris MP and leading stem cell expert Stephen Minger spotted a sentence in the Government’s White Paper on fertility laws published in late December which proposed a ban on the use of human-animal hybrid embryos for research.

As emails started circulating with the text of the White Paper more and more researchers expressed deep dismay that this important area of stem cell research might be banned. I won’t go into too much detail about the science here – not least because unless you have been on holiday in Antarctica – you are likely to have seen the specific process described in great (and accurate) detail in everything from The Sun to the BBC News at Ten. Put basically, what scientists want to do is to further their understanding of certain diseases by studying stem cells from cloned embryos, a process known as therapeutic cloning. However because of the severe shortage of human eggs for this kind of research some have applied to the HFEA for a license to use animal eggs. What they would do is empty out the rabbit or cow egg and put in the nucleus of a human cell – taken from an adult with the disease they want to study – and induce it to become an early stage embryo which would be destroyed at 14 days after they had derived the disease specific stem cells.

What has worried stem cell researchers so much about this surprise proposal is that no reason has been given for recommending a ban apart from the strength of opposition to this research voiced by those who responded to the Government’s consultation on fertility laws. In other words it looks like a government that has gone out of its way to promote the importance of stem cell research may be about to ban one aspect of it for no other reason than a perception that the public don’t like it – and the prospect of ‘frankenbunny’ headlines.

The SMC has history on this issue – it was at our Fertility Rumble press briefing this time last year that Chris Shaw, from Kings College London, first told journalists that he and Ian Wilmut were amongst others considering applying to use rabbit eggs to allow them to pursue their therapeutic cloning research into motor neurone disease. Having seen the media reaction and some of the ‘frankenbunny’ headlines, we immediately spoke to a group of stem cell experts and invited them into the Centre to run a background briefing on these human-animal hybrid embryos. We also continued to organise briefings and interviews as the scientists submitted their applications to the HFEA later in the year.

The SMC reacted to the news about a proposed ban by arguing that this development should be seized as an opportunity to remind public and policy makers this research is needed. We suggested an emergency media briefing to take place in advance of a HFEA meeting scheduled for early January where two applications to use animal eggs were due to be discussed.

With the enthusiastic backing of their respective press officers, Ian Wilmut from EdinburghLyle Armstrong from NewcastleAnne McLaren from Cambridge and Chris Shaw and Stephen Minger from Kings College arrived in the Centre on 4th January to face a room packed full with science and health reporters from almost every conceivable national newspaper and TV and radio station.

There’s something special about a briefing like this where something big is at stake and that’s how it felt on the day. In what one journalists described as a ‘feisty’ briefing, these scientists made a case for the use of rabbit or cow eggs that was compelling, humane, reasoned, passionate and just plain convincing. The arguments just kept coming: the cloned embryo is almost 100% human and the HFEA has already licensed therapeutic cloning of human embryos; it will be destroyed after 14 days; the stem cells are for research only and not to be used as therapies in patients; there will be no living thing produced; no-one is harmed by the research and so on and so on.

For me however the highlight of the briefings was when Chris Shaw, a clinician who sees patients with motor neurone disease every day of his life, told us that despite years and years of research the scientific community has been unable to find a cure or even effective treatments for this most terrible of terrible diseases. Suddenly the moral equation seemed to have changed and it felt to me like it was the Government and those seeking to ban this research who have a case to answer – when tens of thousands of people are suffering and dying – how can they morally justify closing the door on an avenue of research that many experts agree offers real promise? Rather than scientists playing with nature – these scientists came over as people dedicated to improving the quality of life while their opponents are playing politics and running scared of lurid headlines and the pro-life lobby.

Waiting for the media coverage from SMC briefings is always an anxious affair – after all we specialise in presenting the most controversial science subjects to the national news media – it’s a risky business. Though after 4 years at this job I have turned into something of a cheerleader for the national media’s specialist science and health reporters and was less worried about their coverage than about their headlines writers and picture editors. But despite a few images of cute bunny rabbits and the more annoying pictures of 6 month old foetuses in the womb, the coverage was overwhelmingly positive, balanced and accurate. It was also everywhere! Many papers, including The Times and the FT ran leaders supporting the researchers case and many others ran supplementary ‘fact boxes’ explaining the science in great detail. The midnight embargo allowed the Today programme to run not one, not two but three packages on the story as well as making it their lead story on the news bulletins. And thanks to the wonderful science reporters on the Daily Mail, that most important of newspapers ran a beautiful piece pointing put the threat to patients if the HFEA turned down applications for this groundbreaking research!

Such was the intensity of the coverage that health ministers who had refused to put anyone up for interview on the Today programme had to change their mind and agree to an interview on The World at One. And after a week of answering stupid questions about his Christmas holiday in the Bee Gees’ mansion, Tony Blair returned to face very serious questions about his Government’s intention to ban important stem cell research. His response – that he felt sure this research would be allowed to go forward if it could be shown to improve the quality of life for ill people – has given the researchers hope that this wrong-headed proposal won’t make it through to the final legislation.

In the days that followed more of the same kind of media coverage appeared with the scientific community keeping the pressure up with a joint letter to The Times organised by Evan Harris MP and signed by 50 leading experts including three Nobel prize winners and the head of the Royal Society. By this stage other prominent scientists were entering the debate with statements of support from people like Mark Walport from the Wellcome Trust, Colin Blakemore and Chris Higgins form the MRC and many medical ethicists. Within the space of a week there had been so much media coverage of this issue across the whole spectrum of tabloids, broadsheets, radio, TV, on-line etc that few people in the UK could claim to not have heard about human animal embryos. And because the coverage was generated by the scientists, it was their message on this research that came over loud and clear. Interestingly the on-line opinion polls carried out after people had heard the issues explained by the researchers came out very differently to the government’s consultation with nearly 60% of those polled by BBC on-line voting in favour of licensing this research.

So even by the SMC’s standards the first week of 2007 has been both exciting and satisfying. But I hope it will be more than that – I hope that the way these scientists reacted to the threat to their research can act as a model of how scientists should react when other crucial science is under threat. These scientists have done everything right. They have been briefing science and health journalists at every stage of their application to do this research so that by the time the government signalled a plan to ban the research all the key journalists in the national news media already understood the complex science and the compelling case for the research. I have no doubt whatsoever that the media coverage was so good because of the established relationship between these two groups.

Secondly these scientists seized the media agenda in an exemplary way. Despite voices suggesting that lobbying MPs should be done in private and that we should wait to see what the HFEA decided before going to the press, the scientists agreed with the press officers involved that by proactively briefing the media in advance of the HFEA discussion they would have more chance of getting the science across in an accurate and balanced way. This kind of boldness and pro-active approach to influencing public and political discussion is rare in science and obviously scientists rightly don’t want to turn into campaigners – but occasionally there will be policy decisions that are bad for science and bad for society and the scientists doing this research deserve to have their voices heard in the national debate.

A week after our briefing the HFEA announced it would not follow the Government in seeking a ban on research on human animal embryos but will launch a public consultation in which the scientists will be invited to play a significant role. A victory for a brave pioneering group of scientists whose voice was made loud and strong and influential because they were prepared to engage with the media on this most controversial of subjects – the Science Media Centre was proud to be associated with it.


This blog contains the thoughts of the author rather than representing the work or policy of the Science Media Centre.

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