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an Economist Intelligence Unit business healthcare

Hope and hype: stem cells in the media

November 22nd 2011

The field of stem cell research is controversial as it raises some deep ethical concerns, but it also shows great promise. Our report, ‘Hope and hype: stem cells in the media’, written in collaboration with NHS Choices, looks back at nearly 40 news stories covered by Behind the Headlines since 2007.

The report provides an overview of stem cell research, explaining the different types of stem cells, how stem cells are “made” and how they are currently being used for medical purposes. A “word cloud” from Newspaper Headlines of stories covered by Behind the Headlines reveals words such as “hope”, “breakthrough”, “cure” and “first” are some of the most used, illustrating how compelling the potential of stem cells is to the media.

We also reviewed individual stories covered in Behind the Headlines  which demonstrated not only how misleading headlines can be, but also how, on occasion, these complex scientific studies can also be well reported to the general public by the media. Most studies covered were conducted in laboratories or using animals, but the significance of these early-stage, pre-clinical studies was frequently not explained to readers. The few studies conducted in humans were early phase trials, exploring basic safety of the use of stem cells rather than endeavouring to prove their therapeutic effectiveness. Therefore it was unlikely that any of the stories covered would lead to any immediate cures, as sometimes promised in their headlines. All to be taken with a pinch of salt really.

The report also warns of unregulated private stem cell clinics, advising patients to read a short guideline produced by the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) to find out more about what stem cells can and can’t do, before believing the claims of any such organisations.