SEOUL, South Korea, DEC. 17, 2005 (Zenit.org).- Controversy over research methods in South Korea has shed light on some dubious practices in the race to promote human cloning and research with embryonic stem cells. Last spring a team of researchers, led by Woo Suk Hwang of Seoul National University, triumphantly announced the cloning of human embryos, from which they extracted stem cells, the New York Times reported May 20.
The results of the research were published in the journal Science. The method they used is often referred to as therapeutic cloning, as the scientists have no intention of producing babies. But the creation of humans to be used as a source for cells immediately drew strong moral objections.
"Is this how we want the human race to be treated -- as mere fodder for scientific experimentation?" asked David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical Association in a May 19 press release from the group's Washington, D.C., offices.
Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Council for Life, also condemned the experiments. "Abominable," was how he described the research, the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported May 20. He also said that the term of "therapeutic" cloning is misleading, since it is the same cloning technique as that used for reproductive purposes.
On May 23, Archbishop Peter Smith, chairman of the English and Welsh bishops' Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship, noted that in the midst of celebrations over the Korean experiments "we seem to forget that what is involved is the creation and destruction of new human lives."
"It cannot be right to treat young human lives as disposable," he said. The archbishop added that this tragedy is also avoidable, as many advances have been made using stem cells taken from adults or from umbilical cords.
Accusation of lies
After little news for a few months, the South Korean experiments returned to the headlines. On Nov. 12 the Washington Post reported that a University of Pittsburgh researcher, Gerald Schatten, said he would withdraw from the team of Korean scientists because of ethical breaches and lies about the procedures.
Hwang used ova from a junior researcher in his laboratory, contrary to ethical norms. Schatten said Hwang had denied this repeatedly, until the truth finally came out. Further problems were revealed in a Nov. 22 report by the Washington Post. One of the chief researchers on the project, Sung Il Roh, admitted he had paid women for the ova used in the experiments. In the research results submitted to the journal Science, Hwang claimed the ova had been obtained without any payment.
Hwang subsequently made a public apology, and quit all his official posts, even though he will continue his research activities, the BBC reported Nov. 24. During a press conference he admitted he had not told the truth.
In spite of the controversy Hwang continued to be highly regarded in South Korea, where his research had given him a sort of hero status, the New York Times reported Nov. 29. And, in spite of the ethics breaches, the government promised to continue financing Hwang's research.
But fresh doubts over his work arose this month. Initial reports suggest that there could be problems with the data about the embryonic stem cells obtained from the cloning process, the New York Times reported Dec. 10. It is not clear if it is a simple error made in the experiments, or if it is due to a deliberate falsification.
According to the Times, Monica Bradford, the deputy editor of Science, said that the journal had asked Hwang for an explanation. The data will now have to be re-examined by experts.
University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald Schatten, meanwhile, continued his criticisms of Hwang, the Associated Press reported Tuesday. He asked Science to remove him as the senior author of the report it published in June detailing the creation of stem cell colonies through cloning.
"My careful re-evaluations of published figures and tables, along with new problematic information, now casts substantial doubts about the paper's accuracy," Schatten wrote in a letter to Science.
His accusations were confirmed Thursday when Sung Il Roh, a co-author of the Science report, admitted that most of the stem cells mentioned in the May article were faked. The Associated Press said Roh told television reporters that Hwang had pressured a former scientist at his lab to falsify data to make it look as if there were 11 stem cell colonies. Roh said nine of those embryonic stem cell lines claimed by Hwang were actually faked, and the authenticity of the other two was unknown.
The controversy over the Korean experiments prompted a commentary from Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities at the U.S. bishops' conference. In an article published Tuesday on the Web site National Review Online, Doerflinger affirmed that "this scandal is only the tip of the iceberg."
Cloning experiments in general, not just those in South Korea, have long ignored legitimate ethical concerns and have long publicized their results "by ignoring or subverting the facts." Truth standards in stem cell research are especially lax, Doerflinger contended.
The laxness reaches even to leading medical journals, Doerflinger stated. He cited examples of how the New England Journal of Medicine had fudged the facts in reporting research on stem cells. In fact, in July 2003 the NEJM announced it would seek out manuscripts on embryonic stem cell research, and subsequently the journal repeatedly called for the reversal of federal government restrictions on public funding for such work.
But, Doerflinger commented, there is, as yet, no published evidence of "therapeutic" benefit from stem cells derived from cloned embryos. The Korean scandal has drawn widespread attention, yet "the entire propaganda campaign for research cloning has been filled with misrepresentations, hype, and outright lies," Doerflinger said.
Similar accusations were also made by Wesley Smith, in an article published Dec. 5 on the Web site of the Weekly Standard magazine. He cited numerous reports on research where terms are changed so as to conceal the fact that embryos are cloned, and then destroyed, to obtain stem cells. In some cases, for example, reporters refer to them as "early stem cells," instead of embryonic stem cells.
Prior to the revelations about problems with the South Korean research, some medical journals had raised doubts over the hype accompanying the announcements of stem cell experiments. A May 21 editorial in the British Medical Journal explained that "large hurdles still need to be overcome to ensure safety and efficacy," in the use of embryonic stem cells. "The premature use of cell therapy could put many patients at risk of viral or prion diseases," the editorial warned.
A June 4 editorial in another British journal, the Lancet, reported that according to a conference held in London the week before, "no safe and effective stem cell therapy will be widely available for at least a decade, and possibly longer." The editorial contrasted this somber outlook with the "sensationalist headlines" greeting the May announcements of research by Korean researcher Hwang.
Further criticism came from a prominent scientist in the field of fertility research in Britain, Lord Robert Winston. According to a Sept. 5 article in the newspaper Independent, Winston criticized the "hype" over stem cells.
He added that scientists risk a public backlash against their work if their claims were shown to be extravagantly misleading. "Of course, the study of stem cells is one of the most exciting areas in biology," he stated, "but I think that it is unlikely that embryonic stem cells are likely to be useful in health care for a long time."
Moral objections to the manipulation of human life in its earliest stages also continue, most recently from the Pope. In a Dec. 3 speech to participants in a conference of presidents of Latin American bishops' commissions for the family and for life, Benedict XVI warned that embryos are being arbitrarily used without respect for moral principles that safeguard human dignity.
Such a situation leads to a threat for human life, which is reduced to the status of a mere object or instrument. When we arrive to this point, the Pontiff said, the foundations of society itself are at danger. A timely warning indeed.