Harvard, hope and hype: the sad reason behind overselling diabetes stem cell work – raising money

Earlier in the week I got all fired up – not in a good way – about a press release and news stories relating to a new paper from Doug Melton on a insulin producing STEM cell study

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js With a little more discussion I just got more angry



//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js I was angry both about the overselling of the implications of the paper and the fact that the paper was not published in an open manner. This was despite the stated goals of HHMI which funds some of the Melton Lab work.

I was especially upset that much of the press coverage was reporting on an imminent cure for type I diabetes when this was clearly not imminent. Although I note – some coverage was OK. Like these:


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Another good piece of news – HHMI got Doug Melton to post a copy of the paper on a web site

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Although this was kind of hidden


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js Another good thing – Paul Knoepfler, a colleague of mine at UC Davis wrote a blog post for his excellent STEM cell blog about the Harvard study and the hype.


//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js But the hype was still spreading …

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js So I felt like there was a continued need to say something about this

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js I even changed a talk I was giving on Sunday to include a discussion of this paper and the hype as, well, a bad thing

And I thought, and kind of hoped, that this might just go away. And then, many people forwarded me this email from Harvard sent out as part of a fundraising campaign. Most of the people who sent it to me sent it in happiness with the possibility of a cure for type 1 diabetes. Here is the email:

Of for $&*#*# sake.  Really.  So now Harvard was going to use this as a fundraising tool.  And they would oversell it even more:

“A giant breakthrough in making that possible” with “that” referring to “finding a cure”.  And then they say “these cells can replace or augment daily insulin injections” without saying that this WAS NOT IN HUMANS.  THIS WAS IN MOUSE.  $*#($#) DECEPTIVE LYING SCHMUCKS.

And they end this email with “make a gift today.”  How about this Harvard.  I will make donations to anyone but you until you stop marketing in hope and hype and start being responsible.

UPDATE 10/16/14 8 AM PST

Some of the overhyped statements relating to this story:

Harvard Press Story: “We are now just one preclinical step away from the finish line,” said Melton

Rawstory: Stem-cell cure for Type 1 diabetes ‘on par with discovery of antibiotics’

Telegraph: Cure for Type 1 diabetes iminent

Times of India: Type 1 diabetes cure within reach after breakthrough that could spell end of insulin injections for millions

BBC: Giant Leap to Type 1 Diabetes Cure

Author: Jonathan Eisen

I am an evolutionary biologist and a Professor at U. C. Davis. (see my lab site here). My research focuses on the origin of novelty (how new processes and functions originate). To study this I focus on sequencing and analyzing genomes of organisms, especially microbes and using phylogenomic analysis

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