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Stem Cell Ethics Questions

November 25, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SUSAN DENTZER: Yesterday, world-renowned scientist Woo Suk Hwang said he would quit his post at the helm of South Korea’s major new center for embryonic stem cell research.

DR. WOO SUK HWANG (Translated): From the perspective of present laws and ethical rules of the world, I and our research team admit that we lacked ethical awareness.

SUSAN DENTZER: The move came as Hwang acknowledged that two junior researchers on his staff had in fact donated their own egg cells for his research, and that 20 other women had been paid for donating theirs.

DR. WOO SUK HWANG (Translated): Scientific research should be conducted within the boundaries of ethics, but in reality there were some cases in which ethics regulations backing newly developing science were not in place.

SUSAN DENTZER: Hwang’s move capped months of speculation about ethics issues involving his spectacular research. A veterinarian by training, Hwang first gained notice for cloning dozens of animals, including the world’s first cloned dog, announced last August.

Hwang’s notoriety has grown as he and his team have cloned human embryos and then dismantled them to derive embryonic stem cells. It’s the sort of work that could not be funded with federal research dollars in the US under restrictions President George Bush put in place in 2001.

Earlier this year, Hwang and his team announced in the journal Science that they had created specially tailored sets of stem cells with the same nuclear DNA as nine different human donors. That raised the prospect that one day, such genetically matched stem cells could be used to regenerate damaged tissues and organs. The latest concerns about the origins of the human egg cells used in Hwang’s research have only added fuel to the ethics fire.

DR. JERRY SCHATTEN: I am the Sherpa, I am the luggage carrier for you, and the work that you do in Korea doesn’t occur anywhere else in the world.

SUSAN DENTZER: Jerry Schatten is a University of Pittsburgh scientist who met Hwang when he visited his lab in Seoul several years ago. Since then, he’s helped Hwang train and educate other scientists in the U.S.

But earlier this month, Schatten said he was abandoning his work with Hwang out of concerns the Korean had misled him about the egg donors. The egg donations from women on Hwang’s research team were not illegal, but the practice is frowned on in the scientific community out of concern that subordinates could feel pressure from senior scientists.

Hwang said he had only learned about the donations after the fact and had subsequently lied about them at the request of the donors themselves. Similarly, the compensation paid to the 20 other egg donors was not illegal at the time, although South Korea has since passed a law that bars the practice.

The question now is what impact the revelations could have on embryonic stem cell research. South Korea’s government has pumped the equivalent of millions of dollars into Hwang’s lab.

It also built Seoul’s new stem cell research hub, the center from which Hwang just stepped down as director, in hopes of spurring growth of a vibrant new industry.

Today, South Korea’s health minister said the government still stood squarely behind Hwang and would continue funding his work, but there could be greater impact among international among scientists who had planned research collaborations with Hwang.

U.S. and Australian scientists have recently said they would halt talks to move those efforts forward because of the ethical cloud over Hwang’s research. And that could mean that South Korea will continue to make inroads in embryonic stem cell research even as the larger controversy over ethics continues here in the U.S.