Latest on the Stem Cell Scandal
Happy New Year! I hope we can soon put this story behind us.
Dr. Hwang is claiming that someone tampered with the stem cells. He made comments to a Buddhist newspaper Beopbo, including an assertion that he has the technology to do cloning and can replicate his results at any time, and the story has been picked up by other sources. Reuters
quotes him as saying in that article,
"It's certain stem cells have been replaced, and experts would all know that. I think prosecutors would unearth (the stem cell replacement) in about two days after they launch an investigation.”
Hwang has previously asked for an investigation of the alleged tampering. The Japanese newspaper Mainichi
(affiliated with MSN) reports that Hwang believes the stem cells were tampered with by scientists as Mizmedi Hospital, the source of the eggs. Mizmedi denies it.The Korea Times
additionally reports that new allegations are surfacing that Hwang may have received a promise, possibly under coercion, of egg donation from female researchers on his team for his 2004 paper that first described human cloning. It also reports
on a survey taken in Korea in the last week of December, in which 45.6% of respondents thought Hwang should have another chance, and more than 70% “were also skeptical about the government’s support for the World Stem Cell Hub at SNU, initiated by the cloning expert last October, without Hwang’s involvement.” In a third article
, the paper reported that the prosecution is launching an investigation into the “irregularities” in the work; the investigation includes a request for a travel ban on possibly 10 scientists who have collaborated with Hwang. There could be potential fraud or embezzlement charges against Hwang if he is found to have used government funds improperly.
A JoongAng Daily
article (reprinted on an international news site) reports that the Korean government was informed in November that Hwang’s work might be fraudulent, but either the official who was informed or others in the government sat on the issue.
The whole issue is depressing to me, and I expect to many. The Observer
reports in an analytical piece that scientists have lost confidence in the technology, and that many people who studied Hwang’s work may have wasted their time. Time Magazine
has an extensive and well-written overview of the whole situation. It also engages in some speculation as to what went wrong. Meanwhile, various editorials are saying that the field of stem cell research should not be held responsible for Hwang’s dishonesty. (See the Canada Globe and Mail
and the Houston Chronicle
for samples.) Well, yes, but is that possible?
There seem to be several key issues that need to be addressed publicly and vigorously for the field of embryonic stem cell research (and by association, stem cell research in general) to recover its standing. One is a clear and well-defined international set of ethical standards for egg donation. It is my impression that general guidelines exist, but I think they need to be published and highlighted for the public to have confidence in them. While there is no single body governing stem cell research in general, and certainly not internationally, the various organizations that do fund, support, and otherwise do work on stem cell research could come to a collaborative statement.
Second, the technology of embryonic stem cell research, including cloning, needs to be re-evaluated and re-invigorated. There is clearly not much of a problem working with embryonic stem cells derived from embryos; the technology in question is the somatic cell nuclear transfer procedure. If a sheep can be cloned, why is a human so difficult (especially as the goal is not to create a fully functioning human being, but only cells that can become other cells)? Is there a technological difficulty that must be overcome by a really new procedure, or can existing procedures be refined? Are issues not directly related to the technology of cloning bigger problems than they have appeared to be? Hwang’s stem cells were contaminated by a fungus. How did this happen? Does it happen frequently? Ancillary to therapeutic cloning technique research, researchers must also continue their work on understanding how stem cells differentiate, and work needs to be continued on immune system issues.
Third, at least in the US, science in general needs to be strengthened. My 5 year old (the one back in school today, hurray!) already knows a lot of science because of all the work we have taken to encourage and educate him. Children whose families are not interested in science, or who do not accept its basic tenets, or who do not have the time to spend teaching and learning together, are at a disadvantage because schools cannot provide adequate scientific education with poor equipment, overcrowded classrooms, and overworked teachers. When science education becomes memorization for a test rather than real learning with discovery and experimentation, it becomes boring. Consequently people frequently become disinterested in science or simply do not understand it and do not know what constitutes genuine research—or logical thinking. There is a reliance on unquestioned, unfounded assumptions, a misunderstanding of the difference between correlation and causation, or an inability to understand experimental methods and step by step processes. Ultimately, such people cannot evaluate research claims. This can lead to a range of things, from ill individuals sinking lots of money and emotional energy into “cures” that are not real, to bad decisions on the governmental level about allocation of resources, to generalizing about an entire field because of one incident. Scientists are able to evaluate research (at least most of the time, something obviously went wrong initially with Hwang’s work), but the public needs to be able to ask fruitful questions as well.
So let’s see how this year goes—for stem cell research, and for science in general.