Flocks of cloned hens, genetically modified (GM) to produce new anti-cancer proteins in their eggs, are about to provide a host of cheap new drug treatments. Sounds too good to be true? Well yes actually: 'Britney' the headline-grabbing GM-chicken was soon exposed as an invention of the Mail on Sunday newspaper. But not before the Times, the Guardian, BBC News and New Scientist had all repeated the story. Why didn't the Roslin Institute, home of the fake fowl, speak up earlier to set the record straight? Because, as a later report on the New Scientist website explains, the Institute and its commercial partners Viragen were constrained by stock market rules on insider trading. But perhaps the fiasco, though it left some journalists with egg on their faces, will serve to highlight some of the difficulties of reporting advances in biotechnology.
At a press conference held on Wednesday, the project was officially unveiled: the technology that gave us Dolly the sheep is to be applied to chickens, in the hope of 'pharming' hens that produce genetically modified eggs. Eventually, the approach could well provide a cheaper, more efficient way of producing anti-cancer (and other) drugs. But in the meantime, as an editorial in the Guardian points out, the hopes of investors and the price of shares have to be kept high. In this case, the leak of a short press release announcing a new commercial partnership inadvertently resulted in the kind of hyped-up, over-optimistic 'science' story so loathed by scientists.
It is perhaps no surprise that the promise of genetics research is so often over-estimated - biotechnology firms will always need investors, and so will always need to stress the potential benefits of their research, however distant. But reports that raise false expectations of imminent new treatments can sometimes cause more distress than scare stories. It is the responsibility of journalists to distinguish between hype and real hope, and to avoid sensationalising promising new avenues of research.