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
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
Western researchers, however, are in a tizz. In human embryonic stem
cell research community, the principal ethical boundaries are twofold:
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 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
Still, Hwang’s humiliation is unlikely to deal a death blow to
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
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”. 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
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, foreign stem cells, the immune
response or to use powerful designer drugs with unknown side-effects,”
says Professor Geoffrey Raisman, of University College London.5 There
have been no trials with embryonic stem cells.
Confirmation of this suspicion 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
Stem cell scientists are fully aware of the lengthening list of
drawbacks to the stem cells that they obtain from the embryos created
and destroyed in their laboratories. Last year a leading American stem
cell researcher, Ronald D.G. McKay, told the Washington Post that “To
start with, people need a fairy tale… Maybe that’s unfair, but they
need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”7 What Dr
McKay calls a fairy tale, others might call a fib. Or even a lie.
The lesson of the Hwang debacle confirms for scientists what
politicians have always known. Never, ever, tell a little lie — you
might get caught. Play it safe. Tell a big lie
and stick to it for all you’re worth.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.
(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.