A few days ago, I read an interesting news item from on ABC News, where a transplant patient seemed to completely acquire her donor’s immune system, even changing her blood type from Rh-ve to Rh+ve in the process. While this is quite astonishing, the way the news was presented irked me, and I wrote to the reporter, who turned out to be Australia’s National Medical Reporte Sophie Scott.
Ms. Scott was kind enough to answer, but left me wondering. My email was about the presentation of the article, yet the answer I received was completely devoid of any reference to the point of the message I sent.
Here is my email and Ms.Scott’s answer to it :
From: Nachiket Vartak 
Sent: Friday, 25 January 2008 2:57 PM
To: Sophie Scott
Subject: Teen takes on donor’s immune system
This is in reference to your article “Teen takes on donor’s immune system” on ABC News[http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/01/24/2145289.htm].
While the news is quite surprising, I could not help but notice some sensationalism injected into the article caption. “…defied modern medicine”, it says. Since you are the national medical reporter, I am sure you would agree that no “defiance” has taken place here.
It was an unexpected observation, but nothing in modern medicine suggests that it cannot or should not happen. Transplantation physiology is still a developing science, especially when it comes to stem cells. As such, no physician or scientist is going to make claims that stem cells cannot migrate, or that unexpected events such as this may not occur.
What such sensationalism does, is that it subtly undermines the confidence of the public in the science – by suggesting that the science is not perfect (which is true) to the point where it is completely stumped by the reactions and that the human body simply proves the science to be rubbish (which is not true). I hope that as a responsible journalist, you would be precise about calling unexpected events as such. If anything, such events are very promising. I’ll quote Dr.Asimov to explain why – “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I’ve found it!), but ‘That’s funny…'”.
From: Sophie Scott 
Sent: Friday, January 25, 2008 5:03 AM
To: Nachiket Vartak
Subject: RE: Teen takes on donor’s immune system
Thanks for your comments. I agree that transplantation is a developing science. But I don’t think excitement about yesterday’s announcement would undermine the confidence of the public in science.
I think the contrary, that it would inspire people to think that what doctors thought could not happen .. can, and that would give them great optimism about the future.