Down in Flames

Can stem cell research recover from Woo Suk Hwang?

In the fledgling world of embryonic stem cells, where Woo Suk Hwang of Seoul National University once took the field by storm, scientists who had faltered behind him are just now realizing why: his data were faked. Hwang's acknowledgment of fabrication and under-the-table dealings late last year eliminated from the record one of the field's most promising therapeutic advances--patient-specific stem cell lines--and left many wondering how powerfully this crisis, one that ethics expert Jonathan Moreno of the University of Virginia calls "the greatest conduct disaster in microbiology," may swing the debate over embryonic stem cells (ESCs).

Starting in 2004, Hwang and his colleagues reported stunning advances in somatic cell nuclear transfer (otherwise known as therapeutic cloning), in which the nuclei of adult cells were put into embryos to create stem cell colonies specific to patients. Following last year's revelations that only one of those successes actually occurred--the cloning of a dog--the stem cell community has been struggling to gauge the impact.

At worst, says Alan Colman of ES Cell International in Singapore, "it may cause a tainting of the whole field" if the public confuses the tiny corner of research spearheaded by the Koreans with mainstream work on embryonic stem cells harvested from preestablished lines. That work, the only kind funded by the U.S. government, is not as scientifically or ethically precarious because it does not demand new human eggs. ESC research opponent Andrew Fergusson, president of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, corroborates that outcome, predicting that this debacle will "make the average American less likely to support stem cell research" when financial investments, ethical tightrope walking and lack of scientific proof are taken into account. Such a reversal would be disastrous for U.S. researchers, who rely on the public's enthusiasm--translated into private donations and state-sponsored legislation--rather than federal dollars for support.

But at best the scandal has only "set back the clock" on therapeutic cloning, so that "the field is wide open," says Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif., who will continue to pursue research similar to that of the Koreans. Tailored stem cell colonies are considered a crucial way "to study pathology in a petri dish, so you can make all kind of advances that are hard to predict otherwise," explains Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute; he says that the obstacles to succeeding where Hwang failed are principally technical, not biological, and that the money being poured into the work is still money well spent.

Whether funding sources will agree remains to be seen. Moreno points out that "the effect won't be as great as might have been the case a year ago," because four states--California, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey--have already made a financial commitment to embryonic stem cell work. (Still, New Jersey recently tabled its 2005 stem cell measure.) As for institutional backing, opines bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, "patient advocacy isn't budging"--certainly a positive note for the embattled science.

Beyond the future of research, the bigger issue may be how the scientific community will address the apparent lack of safeguards against misconduct. Defenders note that Hwang's faulty science would have been caught eventually, when the experiments defied replication by other, independent parties. And in terms of ethical responsibility, they point to the National Academy of Sciences's guidelines, published voluntarily seven months before Hwang's fraud, and to the fact that it was caught by other scientists, as evidence of the community's self-correcting nature.

Yet the peer-review process--required to publish papers in scientific journals--is not designed to expose outright wrongdoing, even the staunchest advocates have to admit. They agree that had whistle-blowers not come forward, Hwang's falsified data and unethical means of egg procurement might have gone unnoticed. And this revelation, in turn, has recast the spotlight on missing legislation at home and abroad.

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