May 21, 2024


 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.

I am very sorry that I have to tell the public words that are too shameful and horrible," he told . "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 although he will continue with his research with the warm support of his government.

Hwang’s misdemeanour was actually 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 the eyes of most of his countrymen and women, the Hwang affair is a storm in a teacup. 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. Western researchers, however, are in a tizz. In human embryonic stem cell research, 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.

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.

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. But none of these is a palatable alternative.

Third, it will lead to greater pressure in the US for government- funded therapeutic cloning under strict supervision to ensure proper informed consent from egg donors. Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, which cloned humans back in 2001, claims in Nature 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.

Is the Hwang affair a death knell for embryonic stem cell research? Probably not. 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."