No more business as usual for stem cell research

Cartoon biographies of the supreme scientist for Korean childrenStem cell scientists have been shattered by the news that their poster boy, South Korean Hwang Woo-suk, is a fraud. Not Hwang alone, either. Many of his 24 co-authors on a landmark paper claiming to have cloned human embryos and created stem cell lines must have been his accomplices. Storm clouds are gathering over Gerald Schatten, of the University of Pittsburgh, Hwang’s co-author. The chief science adviser to the Korean president, a bioethicist co-author, has tendered her resignation. It is the worst scientific fraud in living memory.

Koreans wept. Scientists groaned over the national humiliation. Patients felt betrayed. “I had pinned all my hopes on Dr Hwang after I heard that he had cured a dog with a spinal cord injury through stem cell treatment,” paraplegic Park Seung-yoo told the Joong Ahn Daily. “I think about how I’m never going to walk again and I just want to die.”1

What happened in Korea puts into question far more than the mere technology of therapeutic cloning. This has been delayed, but no doubt someone in the US or UK will eventually develop stem cell lines. Nor is it a matter of a single rogue scientist: “more a comment on human frailty than... the merits of therapeutic cloning,” as the Boston Globe put it.2  What Hwang’s fraud has exposed is glaring systematic weaknesses involving this ethically controversial research, in which human embryos are created and destroyed for their stem cells. Highlighting them may help to bring reforms.

First of all, its claims have been consistently inflated by its practitioners. The first team to clone an embryo, the American company Advanced Cell Technology, organised a media circus in 2001 which disgusted other scientists. The second, a British group at the University of Newcastle, was denounced by the journal Nature last year for rushing into print without peer review. “Contrary to good scientific practice,” it complained.3  Hwang is not the first stem cell scientist to crave rock star status. Some of their claims have to be assessed in that light.

Second, leading journals are nakedly biased in favour of therapeutic cloning. That helps to explain why Hwang’s faked results were not scrutinised carefully enough. Back in 2003 the leading US medical journal, the New England Journal of Medicine, vowed to aggressively seek out and publish research on embryonic stem cells. “We want to be sure that legislative myopia does not blur scientific insight,” wrote its editor, Jeffrey Drazen.4  The editor of the leading US science journal, Science, which published Hwang’s work, also thundered against Federal restrictions. Scientific American named Hwang “research leader of the year” after the scandal began to emerge.5  

The Korean scandal has exposed the dangers of allowing editorial judgement to be swayed by unscientific motives. In the words of a former director of Stanford Medical School’s press office, “Science, Nature and other premier journals are fierce competitors for subscribers, advertising dollars and intellectual primacy. In today’s world, they cannot afford to be otherwise. But when they put a premium on groundbreaking research and being first in the papers they publish, they can be easily duped. There is nothing to stop some researchers from shading their results, tidying up data or inventing them so as to give editors and peer reviewers what they want.”6

Third, it is dismaying how easily governments are seduced by Amazing New Biotechnology Projects. Hwang didn’t have to spike the drinks of Korean politicians to get them to pour millions into his research and set up a World Stem Cell Hub for him. They issued a postage stamp in his honour and anointed him “supreme scientist”. Elsewhere it is no different. From Australia to Singapore to the UK to California, penny-pinching pollies who slash welfare budgets turn into sugar-daddy spendthrifts when they hear the phrase “embryonic stem cells”. It’s time for a bucket of cold water on our besotted politicians.

The Hwang affair being relayed to the Korean publicFourth, and saddest, the public simply does not understand what is at stake, either ethically or scientifically. After the exposure of Hwang’s lies about sourcing women’s eggs for his experiments, hundreds of young women queued up in the Korean winter to donate theirs to further his research, oblivious to the risks. Even this week, at the nadir of Hwang’s reputation, scores of supporters at his university displayed “Biotechnology Is Our Future” banners. Sixty-nine per cent of Koreans actually think that this manipulative liar and charlatan should be given a second chance.7  Does anyone really think that the American public is better informed?

A researcher at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, David A. Shaywitz, commented recently that “it is common knowledge that the bar for publication in this field often has appeared remarkably low, with even well-respected research journals seeming to fall over one another for the privilege of publishing the next hot paper. The result of this frenzy has been an entire body of literature that is viewed with extreme scepticism by most serious stem cell investigators.”8 Well, this scandal may have be common knowledge at Harvard, but the news hasn’t filtered down to the media or the masses yet. The public deserves better information.

Fifth, despite scientists’ reputation as maverick thinkers, they are just as susceptible to peer pressure and group-think as anyone else. Hwang’s underlings were pressured into colluding in the fraud. One poor young researcher apparently had to donate her own eggs to replace some she destroyed some accidentally in the laboratory. Americans and other Westerners are far less deferential to their bosses than Koreans, but they are still reluctant to break ranks. A stem cell scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Assoc. Prof. James Sherley, complained recently that “Many scientists who do not support human embryo research are afraid to speak out because of possible reprisals from powerful scientists who can affect grant success, publication acceptances, tenure promotion, and employment.”9  Perhaps Hwang’s downfall may help dissident scientists to express their convictions more openly.

Finally, the Hwang affair suggests that when it comes to ethics, stem cell scientists are not the sharpest knife in the drawer. For years they have said, and the media has repeated, that human embryos are no more than blobs of jelly. The public believed this because they appeared honest and idealistic and their technology had promise. But now their celebrity colleagues have been exposed as shameless frauds who succumbed to the same vanity, peer pressure, complacency and greed that plague all of us. Now it's official: a white coat and a PhD in stem cell biology do not guarantee ethical insight. In any case, embryonic stem cells are still bogged at the starting line while adult stem cells have done several laps. What credibility can the crass utilitarianism which underlies embryo research have now? It’s time to go back to basics on stem cell ethics.

Michael Cook is the editor of the international bioethics newsletter BioEdge and also of  MercatorNet.

(1) “Research center in limbo as funding, hope vanish”. Joong Anh Daily. Jan 9, 2005.
(2) “Stem cell deception”. Boston Globe. Dec 30, 2005.
(3) “Too much, too soon”. Nature. June 2, 2005.
(4) Jeffrey M. Drazen. “Legislative Myopia on Stem Cells”. NEMJ, Jul 17, 2003.
(5) “Scientific American 50: Research Leader of the Year”. Scientific American. Nov 21, 2005.
(6) Syyros Andreopoulos. “Scandal over Stem-Cell Research”. San Francisco Chronicle. Jan 3, 2005.
(7) “Cloning fabricated, Seoul panel concludes”. International Herald Tribune. Jan 10, 2006
(8) David A. Shaywitz. “Stem Cell Hype and Hope”. Washington Post. Jan 12, 2005.
(9) “To clone or not to clone”. MercatorNet. Dec 6, 2005.


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