June 29, 2022

Were Korean egg donors public-spirited or press-ganged?

Hwang Woo Suk (Nature)

More controversy is swirling around the Korean scientist who announced in February that he had successfully cloned human embryos and created a stem cell line. This time the issue is whether women were pressured into donating their eggs to further his research. Korean bioethicists, human rights activists and the leading journal Nature have all suggested that the donors included junior members of a research team headed by Woo Suk Hwang. Nature was told by a PhD student on the team, Ja Min Koo, that she and another woman in the lab had donated eggs. She subsequently changed her story, blaming her poor English for a misunderstanding. Hwang and the ethics committee which approved the research refused to provide further information.

When the news of the experiment first broke, many non-Korean scientists expressed their astonishment that Hwang had been able to persuade 16 volunteers to provide him with 242 eggs for his research. Egg donation is uncomfortable at best and at worst can be life-threatening. In the US, for instance, stem cell researcher Jose Cibelli paid women thousands of dollars and obtained only 20 eggs. In an editorial comment Nature said that egg donors should all be genuine volunteers with no direct connection with the research. “If the air is not cleared quickly, the consequences for Korean science — and for research into therapeutic cloning internationally — could be severe.”

Hwang and his IVF colleague Shin Young Moon became instant celebrities in Korea and around the world when they provided proof of principle for therapeutic cloning. In April Hwang received the South Korean government’s most prestigious science award and was included in Time magazine’s “A-list of the world’s most influential people”. Apart from therapeutic cloning and animal cloning, Hwang is also experimenting with human-cow hybrids although only 9% of his hybrid embryos have reached the stage at which embryonic stem cells can be harvested.

In South Korea’s hyper-patriotic society, questioning the research methods of a prominent figure like Dr Hwang is a delicate issue. “No one wants to debate the ethics because the government is so excited about it,” a scientist at Seoul National University told Nature. “Most scientists are also worried about a lack of students in science, so they don’t want to break the excitement either.”