Scientists with clay feet

hwang woo sukEmbryonic stem cell research pioneer Hwang Woo-suk had a really bad day yesterday. Dr. Hwang is the cloning superstar who was riding the express train to the Nobel Prize until a few weeks ago. He received Time magazine's invention of the year award for his cloned puppy and earlier this month he won Scientific American's researcher of the year award. A bit of background: In early 2004, Hwang produced the world's first human embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. He faced a huge uproar a few weeks ago over the fact his research eggs were supplied by his subordinates -- a no-no in the medical community because of the appearance or reality of coercion. And then there were the confirmed rumors that still other women were paid for their ova.

In May, Hwang's team published proof it developed the world's first human embryonic stem cells tailored to match the DNA of individuals. Yesterday, after weeks of heavy speculation, the news came out that the study was fraudulent.

In Korea, where Hwang is a national hero, the populace is dumbfounded. The country has been beating the U.S. in the global embryonic stem cell war based almost completely on the work of Dr. Hwang and his team, so the Korean press has been all over the story. Last week, a story on Catholic, Protestant, Confucian and Buddhist views toward embryonic stem cell research appeared in the Korea Times:

For the religious groups, the key question seems to be whether or not to consider embryonic stem cells, upon which Hwang's cloning experiments are based, as a living entities. The three main religions that oppose Hwang's research define stem cells as living creatures and therefore the destruction of stem cells for scientific purposes could be equivalent to murder. However, they are also in the position of having to persuade the public, the majority of whom applaud Hwang's landmark research exploits.

One thing to watch for in coverage of this contentious topic is how some reporters covering stem cell research often fail to distinguish between stem cell research in general and embryonic stem cell research. In doing so, they incorrectly give the appearance that those who oppose research that requires the destruction of human embryos oppose the larger field. Here's Reuters:

Hwang may brief reporters separately later on the case, which has wide ramifications for the already controversial field of stem-cell research. If the research proves to be flawed or false it would rank as one of the biggest science fraud cases in years.

"I am sure anti stem-cell activists will use this to show that there are problems with this science and that it is not effectively regulated," said David Winickoff, assistant professor of bioethics at the University of California, Berkeley, by telephone.

John Rennie over at Scientific American gives a full rundown of the scandal and provides analysis: better muppet

Frankly, I've been surprised that some of the usually vociferous opponents of embryonic stem cell research haven't been making more of a fuss about the Hwang affair all along. I kept waiting to hear them argue that the ethical laxity of the Korean lab only proved that the moral of judgment of stem cell researchers couldn't be trusted--that no matter what promises the scientists made to uphold human dignity in their work, they would surely start committing atrocities once they were allowed to operate freely.

Maybe they're not making more of a fuss in the stories because no one is even talking to them. Or at least that's the case with Reuters and BBC and ABC and Time. Perhaps someone should ask opponents of embryonic stem cell research what they think of these developments.

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