May 18, 2024

Hwang’s therapeutic cloning may be outmoded

iPS cell progress may have made it irrelevant

So where is human embryonic stem cell research now, 4 years after Hwang Woo-suk was exposed as a fraud? News from the world’s best-funded institute for it suggests that its star is fading. On Wednesday the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine awarded US$230 million for 14 research grants — but only 4 of them were for embryonic stem cells. The others were for adult stem cells or induced pluripotent stem cells. It was, according to the New York Times, “a tacit acknowledgment that the promise of human embryonic stem cells is still far in the future”.

And in an article in Nature Reviews Genetics. Donna Dickenson, emeritus professor of medical ethics at the University of London, says that it is dying a quiet death because of its lack of progress, especially compared with, iPS cells. “It seems that we are now in the fortunate position of not having to choose between good science and good ethics,” she writes.

She cites a number of developments to support this. President Obama’s guidelines for US National Institutes of Health funding will direct federal money into iPSC rather than somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) research (also known as therapeutic cloning). She cites a personal communication with British bioethicist David Jones who says: “I think Obama’s stand is very helpful, as he is both regarded as a champion of stem cell research … and as someone with an ethical vision.”

Professor Dickenson’s objection to what is commonly known as therapeutic cloning centres on the exploitation of women. She points out that Hwang used more than 2,200 eggs in his fruitless research. Harvesting the eggs also has potentially lethal side effects. Payment for eggs — which was legalised recently in New York, but is banned in most other jurisdictions –contributes to the commercialization of the human body. However, she says, the development of iPS cells now means that “my prophecy of an exploitative global market may not come true, which causes me no disquiet whatsoever.” ~ Nature Reviews Genetics, Nov 2009

Michael Cook