Friday, December 02, 2005

Quick take on the stem cell scandal at Seoul National University

I haven't blogged yet about the saga of Prof. Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University. Hwang was doing cutting-edge research with stem cells from cloned embryos and now ... well, suffice it to say allegations of ethical improprieties in the research seem to have put the kibosh on Hwang's activities. He has stepped down as the chair of the World Stem Cell Hub after admitting there were ethical problems with how the (human) eggs used in the cloning effort were obtained. The international collaboration of which Hwang's cloning team was an important part was of great interest to American scientists, especially given federal funding restrictions on stem cell research and laws in some states against such research.

The heart of the ethical lapse? That the egg donors were paid (not in itself necessarily unethical) but that Hwang at first denied that they had been, and that two of the donors were in fact junior members of the research team (and thus might not have been making free donations but coerced ones).

Part of how this all came to light is that one of Hwang's American collaborators, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, pulled out of the collaboration rather publicly because (he said) having become aware of the ethical lapses, he couldn't stay a part of the collaboration and needed to sever all ties to Hwang's group. The scientific goodness of Hwang's results (which were published a couple of years ago) hasn't been called into question. Still, given the contentious nature of any research that involves cloning human embryos (at least in countries like the U.S.), it's easy to see how scientists involved in this sort of research would want to make sure everything is up to the very highest ethical standards.

So many issues here ... luckily, many have already been taken up at the bioethics web log. For instance:

  • What precisely is the ethical problem with how the eggs were obtained from the research? Read a post explaining why what happened is a big deal, and another post arguing that maybe it wasn't so much of a lapse.
  • How do different regulations, political climates, and ethical concerns in different countries make this sort of scenario a likely outcome of international collaborations? I was shocked to see this report that very few biotech researchers in Korea are familiar with, of even aware of, the international standards for research with human subjects embodied in the Declaration of Helsinki. Of course, I haven't seen the poll of U.S. biotech researchers for comparison ... Also, see this post that suggests that international collaborations born of American restrictions on research will lead to research where there's no way to tell if the ethics are on the level -- the solution being, of course, for the U.S. to fund (and oversee the ethics of) such research at home so its scientists aren't going offshore.
  • The role of the whistleblower, Gerald Schatten. My initial reaction to this case was that it is a good thing, when discovering your collaborator has made some very bad ethical choices, to confront him about it and call him out on his sh*t rather than keeping it quiet. But, possibly, the situation is more complicated. There are some reports that there might have been a scuffle over patent rights that precipitated Schatten's withdrawal. And, now it seems, one of the junior researchers who was an egg donor may have gone missing while working with Schatten in Pittsburgh. The conspiracy theory suggestion is that Schatten would be less interested in the contents of her ovaries than in the contents of her mind (including all the vital technical know-how that people outside of Hwang's lab have been trying to work out).

In other words, someone is going to get a really interesting book out of all this. Me, I'll be grading papers and reading job files. So keep following the story, and its many facets, at the bioethics web log.


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