Thursday, November 17, 2005

South Korean stem cell project under scrutiny

I had seen news items here and there, but Glenn McGee at says that the breakdown of a collaboration between stem cell star Wu Suk Hwang and an American scientist is much more than it appears. It might be that the human stem cells which contributed so much to Hwang's prestige were obtained from a junior scientist in his lab, raising the possibility that there was professional coercion for her to donate. Here's the Washington Post:

Embryo cloning requires human eggs, which are typically donated by women in a process that requires a month-long series of hormone injections followed by a minor but not risk-free surgical procedure. Because of the modest but real health risks involved, researchers who perform the procedure are required to get informed consent from donors and fulfill other ethics requirements.

Glenn argues that stem cell workers must to be squeaky clean, even beyond the statutory limits on their behaviors, because of the controversy around their work; and that Hwang may have damaged not only his own standing, but that of the field.

I am an interested outsider and can't really evaluate the potential impact of this. But the American, Gerald Schattner, was apparently a very big part of Hwang's international network. The Post again:

The impact of yesterday's (November 11) revelations could be far-reaching, Schatten and others acknowledged. Hundreds of scientists have visited Hwang's Seoul laboratories in the past two years, and many have initiated collaborations with him. The field has also been under scrutiny because of ethical concerns about the creation and destruction of cloned human embryos.

Both are worth a read.

UPDATE: Nature (subscription) is also very alarmed at the Schattner's accusation:

To maintain public support for any controversial field of science, researchers need to follow strict ethical guidelines — and be seen to be doing so. If for whatever reason that doesn't happen, responsibility jumps up a level. It then becomes the job of regulatory bodies and funding agencies to ensure that researchers are brought to account.

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