February 28, 2024


A paralysed Korean woman who took some faltering steps after treatment with adult stem cells in 2004 says that her treatment has failed badly. She can not walk; she is in constant pain; and she can not even sit in a wheelchair. Doctors say that her spine became infected during a second round of therapy. Hwang Mi-sun, 39, now warns other patients not to place too much trust in stem cell treatment.

Although adult stem cells have had more clinical successes than embryonic stem cells (which have had none), no therapies have been approved by government health officials in any country. However, euphoria in 2004 over the apparently successful research of the now- disgraced Hwang Woo-suk led the South Korean government to relax restrictions on the use of adult stem cells in clinical trials. In 2003 no treatment with adult stem cells was reported. In 2005, 118 people were given experimental treatments.

The results were none too promising. According to a report in the JoonAng Ilbo newspaper, 80% of 73 patients undergoing these experimental procedures developed serious side effects and 12 died. At the moment, emergency clinical trials of stem cell treatments are abused by researchers and companies in the majority of cases,” says Kim Ok-joo, a bioethicist at Seoul National University’s College of Medicine. “For their gain, they take advantage of patients’ hopes. The nation needs ethical and legal frameworks for stem cell therapy. The nation need to be awakened from the Hwang Woo-suk myth.”

News of the failure crackled on the blog of the editors of The American Journal of Bioethics. Friends and foes of embryonic stem cell research traded angry words and accused each other of distorting the facts. Arthur Caplan, probably the highest-profile US bioethicist and a supporter of embryo research, rejoiced that his opponents would have to eat crow over this apparent failure of adult stem cells. This prompted a long train of increasingly dyspeptic posts from correspondents who disputed nearly everything he said.

However, Korean experience just confirms what has already become clear from anecdotal evidence from other countries: that stem cell treatment of any kind has its risks. Nonetheless desperate patients want them and eager doctors will comply. Clinics in the Ukraine, Russia, China and the Dominican Republic provide stem cell therapies with adult stem cell, foetal stem cells and cord blood stem cells — but none of them have produced evidence that they really work. Some patients have found partial relief for their ailments, but many have been bitterly disappointed and some have died.