By Robert Bazell Chief science and health correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/29/2006 11:13:48 AM ET 2006-08-29T15:13:48

The campaign to generate hype kicked off weeks before the news broke — as often happens when biotechnology firms claim major achievements

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A company called Advanced Cell Technology was preparing to publish its results, out last week, that it had harvested human embryonic stem cells from single cells of embryos. 

“We have a research discovery so important it will change some fundamental assumptions in science,” a representative from a public relations company told me long before the news came out. But then added, “We can’t tell you the details yet.”

When the company’s press release finally appeared, it called the new finding “a way out of the current political impasse in this country and elsewhere” over the use of stem cells from human embryos. Many broadcasts and newspapers repeated that claim in lead stories and headlines. While the research is reasonable, published in the highly respected journal Nature, the notion it will solve ethical dilemmas, as claimed in the press release, is just plain wrong. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania and an contributor, set out the reasons in a recent article on this site

Hype and hyperbole
In the world of biotechnology, hype and hyperbole are the norms. Most companies lack products so they are constantly scrounging for money to stay in business. There is a saying in biotech that before companies have something to sell “news flow drives valuations.” So headlines, even if the claims prove groundless, can push up the stock price long enough — or nudge deals forward — to keep the company on life support.

But even in this smelly landscape Advanced Cell Technology stands out. Its president and chief scientific officer Dr. Michael West has repeatedly proven his ability to thrust himself and his company into the headlines sometimes with good science but often with dubious claims. In two of the most notorious instances, in 1998 he said the company had fused cow eggs with human DNA to make a potentially hybrid creature. In 2001, he announced ACT had taken the first step toward cloning a human.

In his excellent book “Merchants of Immortality,” Stephen Hall described West as “some Zelig of modern biology … in the laboratory … at congressional hearings, before presidential ethics panels, and frequently, in the press and on the air.” West justifies most of his actions as necessary to push forward research which he truly believes will someday cure human disease, but it almost always also produces a financial result.

500 percent stock price rise
Two days after the headlines about extracting stem cells from single cells in embryos, ACT, a company with 27 employees that has been struggling financially, was able to announce it had raised $13.5 million. Holders of debentures and warrants to buy its stock agreed to exercise their options to buy more, the company said.

The announcement also kicked up the stock price 500 percent in two days — from 40 cents the day before the announcement to $2 the day after. A day later, the stock retreated back down to around 80 cents. It is hard to know from the outside who profits and who loses in such sudden stock price shifts, but the potential is clearly huge.

Many of the scientists who want to end the Bush Administration’s restrictions on federal funding for stem cell research argue that someone will do the research anyway. As this latest episode illustrates, when a biotechnology like Advanced Cell Technology undertakes the research, it requires raising a lot of money, which can lead to exaggerated claims — and that doesn't help science or the effort to improve human health.

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