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'We Have to Formulate Our Own Bioethics'

By Michael Cook - December 2, 2005 12:00 AM

Researchers who want to clone human embryos and create stem cells are facing the biggest public relations disaster in the history of their fledgling science. Their most acclaimed colleague, Hwang Woo-suk, of Seoul National University, has admitted that he lied about his compliance with ethical protocols. It was a devastating blow: Hwang's team had been the first to successfully clone human embryos, the first to clone a dog, the first to create embryonic stem cell lines. Now a shadow had been cast over his work.

"I am very sorry that I have to tell the public words that are too shameful and horrible," he told a packed press conference. "The world gasped in awe when I first showed the results of my research. I felt a national pride and tasted the confidence that we Koreans could achieve things too," he said. "I was blinded by work and my drive for achievement." Hwang has now resigned from all public posts and has slipped away to a remote Buddhist temple to reflect on all that has happened.

Koreans are masters of rhetorical self-abasement and Hwang's self-criticism is somewhat exaggerated. His misdemeanour was fairly minor. Despite explicit assertions that the eggs for his research had been donated by generous Korean women, he actually purchased most of them from needy women. Two of his subordinates donated eggs as well. There were persistent rumours of this but the issue came to a head when he denied them in an interview with the journal Nature. In fact, he had done nothing illegal under South Korean law, although since then selling eggs has been banned in South Korea.

In fact, in the eyes of most of his countrymen and women, Hwang is not a criminal but a national hero. Hundreds of indignant women have volunteered to donate their eggs to further his research. Korean politicians have muttered that his humiliation was engineered by jealous Americans. A Korean bioethicist contends that "we have our different social and cultural context, so we have to formulate our own bioethics." (1)

Western researchers, however, are in a tizz. In human embryonic stem cell research community, the principal ethical boundaries are twofold: obtaining informed consent for egg donations and repudiating reproductive cloning. If the public believes that cloning scientists are lying about one, it might think that they are lying about the other as well. Years of work grooming their image as sober medical researchers and not mad scientists from a late night creature feature, might be wasted. It might even prompt the public to ask whether it is really ethical to create, experiment on, and destroy thousands upon thousands of human embryos.

Hwang's downfall will have several consequences. The first is the possible collapse of his World Stem Cell Hub, which was launched only at the beginning of November. This was going to provide researchers in the US and UK with embryonic stem cells from his laboratory. But until Western researchers can be sure that South Koreans are sensitive to the demands of clinical research ethics, they may shun collaborative projects. South Korean researchers are clearly deficient in this area. A recent survey shows that 8 out of 10 biotechnology researchers are not even aware of the Helsinki Declaration, the gold standard for clinical research ethics. (2)

Second, it underscores the difficulty of obtaining eggs, the essential raw material for cloning. If reputedly hyper-patriotic Korean women are reluctant to donate their eggs, what chance do researchers have of obtaining the thousands, even millions, of eggs that they will need to deliver on promises of miracle cures? China, with its relatively low bioethical standards, or other developing countries, might be able to provide them. Israeli scientists have mooted the possibility of obtaining eggs from aborted female foetuses. Rabbit or cow eggs can be used to produce hybrid embryos which would be useful for some forms of research. But none of these is a palatable alternative.

Third, it will lead to greater pressure in the US for government-funded therapeutic cloning. Scientists will point to the Korean experience and assert that America needs to support and regulate the cloning of embryos so that it will be done under strict supervision. Only in this way, they will argue, can proper informed consent be obtained from the egg donors. Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, a struggling biotech company which cloned humans back in 2001, was quick to point this out. In a letter to Nature he claims that the US lost the cloning race because of the Bush administration's restrictive policies. Had there been a more liberal approach, American stem cell scientists would have beaten the Koreans and would have done so "ethically", to boot, he argues. (3)

Still, Hwang's humiliation is unlikely to deal a death blow to embryonic stem cell research. Given his research credentials, a few weeks in the doghouse will probably be followed by complete rehabilitation. As American bioethicist John Robertson, of the University of Texas at Austin, comments: "Now that he has done his public mea culpa I say the time is to forgive him and let him get back to plying his considerable craft." (4)

But the incident certainly strengthens the view that stem cell scientists are not averse to playing fast and loose with the truth. Hwang stumbled because he fibbed about his paperwork. Very few, if any, of his colleagues are likely to make the same mistake. Barefaced liars are always at risk of being discovered.

However, Hwang, and indeed nearly all advocates of cloning embryos have made a habit of fibbing about miracle cures from their research. The clearest illustration of this is a Korean postage stamp issued to honour Hwang. Korea Post describes his work rhapsodically as "another step forward in liberating humankind from incurable diseases that have inflicted untold human suffering for almost eternity".


Source: http://www.koreapost.go.kr/eng/postal/stampplan/2005/2005eng_02.jsp

The stamp has two panels. On the left a cell is being manipulated and on the right a paralysed man is bounding out of his wheelchair, kicking up his heels and embracing his girlfriend. With a tantalising vision like this on their stamps, it is no wonder that Hwang is so warmly supported by ordinary Koreans.

Miracles like this are just short of sheer fantasy. Embryonic stem cells have not cured a single patient and they may never do so -- although they could be useful raw material for genetic research and drug testing. This week a British scientist announced the commencement of clinical trials on wheelchair-bound patients with spinal cord injuries. But he is using adult stem cells. These "will avoid the need to use embryonic tissue, to find donor individuals ... or to use powerful designer drugs with unknown side-effects," says Professor Geoffrey Raisman, of University College London. (5) There have been no human trials with embryonic stem cells.

Confirmation of this suspicion that ESC therapies are coming soon comes from an unlikely source: Lord Robert Winston, a leading British IVF researcher. In his presidential address at the British Association's Science Festival in Dublin not long ago, he warned the public against scientific hype: "The study of stem cells is one of the most exciting areas in biology but I think it is unlikely that embryonic stem cells are likely to be useful in health care for a long time." He views the current wave of optimism about embryonic stem cells with "growing scepticism".(6)

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge, an international bioethics newsletter.

email: mcook@australasianbioethics.org

Notes

(1) "South Korean scandal brings worries in stem cell projects". USA Today. Nov 28, 2005.

(2) "Study Shows Bioethics Awareness Lacking". donga.com. Nov 25, 2005.

(3) Robert Lanza and Ronald M. Green. "Bush's policy stopped US gaining stem-cell lead". Nature. Nov 24, 2005.

(4) John Robertson. "Ethical Mountain or Ethical Molehill?". blog.bioethics.net. Nov 25, 2005.

(5) "Stem cell pioneer offers hope to the paralysed". Telegraph (UK). Nov 30, 2005.

(6) "Medical value of stem cells 'over-hyped'". Telegraph (UK). September 5, 2005.

(7) "Stem Cells An Unlikely Therapy for Alzheimer's". Washington Post. June 10, 2004.

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