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'Just a spot of bother' for stem cell researchers

By Michael Cook - posted Thursday, 19 January 2006

Stem cell scientists have been shattered by the recent confirmation 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 accomplices. Storm clouds are gathering over Gerald Schatten, of the University of Pittsburgh, Hwang's co-author. The Korean president's chief science adviser, also a co-author, has resigned. Hwang may face criminal charges. It is one of the worst cases of scientific fraud in living memory.

Koreans wept. Scientists groaned. 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."

But in Australia, dreams blighted, money wasted, reputations shattered and research tainted are just a spot of bother. It's business as usual. "It's sad, but the field will move on," says the chief executive of the Australian Stem Cell Centre, Hugh Niall. "If anything, it's going to stimulate more research." And his colleague Martin Pera, agrees: "I don't think it will interfere with the progress of this work."


Hang on, guys. When the Columbia space shuttle disintegrated in 2003, NASA didn't sweep up the mess and book the next flight. It launched a two-year investigation before it tried again. And that's more or less what Australia should do with plans to legalise therapeutic cloning: shelve them.

What happened in Korea puts into question far more than the technology of therapeutic cloning. This has been delayed, but no doubt someone will eventually develop cloned stem cell lines. What Hwang's fraud has exposed is glaring systemic weaknesses involving this ethically controversial research, in which human embryos are created and destroyed for their stem cells.

First of all, claims are consistently inflated by its practitioners. The first to clone an embryo, the American company Advanced Cell Technology, organised a media circus in 2001 which disgusted other scientists. A British group at the University of Newcastle was denounced by the journal Nature last year for rushing into print without peer review. Hwang is not the only stem cell scientist who wants to be a rock star. It's time for a bit of professional humility.

Second, journals such as Science, The New England Journal of Medicine and Scientific American are nakedly biased in favour of therapeutic cloning. That helps to explain why Hwang's faked results were not scrutinised carefully enough. "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," commented David Shaywitz, of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, this week. It's time for some scientific objectivity.

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. They issued a postage stamp in his honour and anointed him "supreme scientist". Elsewhere it is no different. From Australia to Singapore to Britain to California, penny-pinching pollies who slash welfare budgets turn into sugar-daddy spendthrifts when they hear the words "embryonic stem cells". It's time to pour a bucket of cold water over our besotted politicians.

Fourth, 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 volunteered to donate their own, oblivious to the risks. Even this week, at the nadir of Hwang's reputation, hundreds of demonstrating fans 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. Is the Australian public really better informed? It's time for an intelligent public debate.


Finally, the Hwang affair suggests that when it comes to ethics, Australian stem cell scientists are not the sharpest knives 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 were high-minded and successful. But now their celebrity colleagues have been exposed as shameless frauds moved by vanity, peer pressure, complacency and greed, just like the rest of us. Their embryo technology is still bogged at the starting line while adult stem cells have done several laps. What credibility can the crass utilitarianism that underlies this research have now? It's time to go back to taws on stem cell ethics.

Last month the Lockhart Review recommended that parliament legalise therapeutic cloning. In the light of what has happened in Korea, this would be a terrible blunder. It can no longer be business as usual for Australian stem cell research.

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First published in The Australian on January 13, 2006.

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About the Author

Michael Cook edits the Internet magazine MercatorNet and the bioethics newsletter BioEdge.

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