Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit (banazir) wrote,
Banazîr the Jedi Hobbit

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Dr. Hwang Woo Suk resigns in stem-cell cloning scandal

(Cross-posted to infojunkies and _scientists_.)
Edit, 13:40 CST Sat 24 Dec 2005 - I added the BBC article on British stem cell researchers' reactions and the New York Times article on Dr. Hwang.

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Surrounded by reporters outside his office after tendering his resignation from Seoul National University, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk apologizes to South Korea on December 23, 2005.
Photo from The Telegraph (UK).

South Korean professor Hwang Woo Suk quits after university investigators say he fabricated his famed stem cell research.
December 23, 2005

The South Korean professor whose human embryonic stem cell research had made him an international science superstar resigned Friday after a university panel investigating his work charged it was "intentionally fabricated."

Hwang Woo Suk, the first person to have claimed cloning a human embryo, quit after the panel from the Seoul National University questioned his research. Last Friday, Dr. Hwang retracted a scientific paper, but told his critics the work would be vindicated in 10 days (see Stem Cell Expert Defends Work).

The panel began investigating Dr. Hwang’s work after critics questioned the ethical rigor and veracity of his research. Among the problems, Dr. Hwang admitted last month he knew that human eggs used in his research came from colleagues in the laboratory and paid donors. He had denied the accusation for months.

But the man who brought South Korea to the forefront of stem cell and cloning studies lost his hero status after the panel stated results in Dr. Hwang’s landmark 2005 paper on producing tailored embryonic stem cells were faked, according to several press reports.

The paper was published in May in the U.S. journal Science. In the publication, Dr. Hwang’s research described the creation of 11 stem cell lines from nine people with spinal cord injuries, juvenile diabetes, and an immune disorder.

The findings were celebrated as they demonstrated that embryonic stem cell lines could be matched to particular patients, male and female and of various ages.

This was at the time a necessary advance as researchers are looking to stem cells to one day fulfill the aspirations of regenerative medicine (see Stem Cell Advances Reported).

Source: [ Red Herring ]
Other articles: [ Chosun Ilbo (South Korea) | BBC (UK) | New York Times (USA) | Telegraph (UK) | Voice of America (USA) | ABC News (USA) | MSNBC (USA) | Detroit Free Press (USA) ]
Reference: [ Wikipedia articles: ( Hwang Woo Suk * stem cells * cloning ) | New Scientist piece on sex and cloning ]

My thoughts

I agree with the researchers who say that Dr. Hwang's admitted and alleged ethical violations should not be extrapolated to either South Korean science or stem cell research in general.

On "taint by association": Both are real concerns. The backlash against South Korea and the concern of the person on the street in Korea is due to Dr. Hwang's prominence and the tremendous amounts of publicity and funding he has had, with public scrutiny commensurately intense. It's a safe bet to say he had more detractors and adversaries within and without academia as a result, long before this scandal broke and he fell under suspicion. South Korean science has garnered a reputation for being very high-pressure and competitive, a phenomenon driven by and facilitative of nationalistic zeal. The vulnerability of stem cell research in light of the scandal is due in large part to its being a politically charged topic in recent years. Some stem cells have been harvested from aborted human fetuses, and because embryonic stem cells come from blastocysts (which are week-old embryos containing about 100 cells). The crux of the debate is that, as Wikipedia reports:
In the U.S., the leaders of many Christian groups (such as Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Fundamentalists) as well as other unaffiliated and non-religious groups, believe that a human blastocyst is a human being, with the according human rights, and therefore oppose embryonic stem cell research because the start of each cell line involves the destruction of a blastocyst. Catholics view embryonic stem cell research - not adult stem cell research though - as intrinsically evil and never to be supported since it requires the death of an innocent human life created by God.

On scientific ethics and accusations of impropriety: There is another black eye that this scandal threatens to give science, and that is to the credibility of authoritative figures and research directors in general. If proven, Dr. Hwang's alleged conduct would indeed be a grave ethical error. The taint of the scandal, however, extends beyond Dr. Hwang's domain of science and his sphere of influence, to diminish the credibility of science in general. You may have read my rants on an increasingly anti-intellectual atmosphere that pervades early 21st century America. In our era of greater automation and increasing emphasis on experimental science and organized research, there is also a global trend towards intensive scrutiny of results, sometimes leading to draconian expectations concerning reproducibility and validation. Unfortunately, I think there is also a higher degree of mutual distrust among researchers, and it is getting increasingly antagonistic in my personal opinion and experience. Those of you reading this who are younger scientists and scholars may find the atmosphere even more hostile and inundated with unethical practices on both sides by the time you are full-fledged members of the research community. To you, I can only say this: trust breeds trust, and mistrust likewise. "Science is a series of challenges," one of my deans aptly pointed out. And so it is; but the protocols for this challenge do not preclude common decency, courtesy, and forbearance.

On fame, personal glory, and dishonor: Dr. Hwang has certainly had more expectations (and now calumny) heaped on his head than any human being deserves. He had more praise, too, but that's hardly something one asks for, even if one enjoys it while it lasts. To me, this is similar to the Western concept of trading privacy for celebrity.

Some unsympathetic people without fame will say, "it comes with the territory". Personally, I think people have, and exercise, the right to trade privacy for notoriety. That is fine, but it should not be taken at forced sale. If celebrities don't want their children blinded by paparazzi cameras, they very much have the right to demand that level of privacy, IMO. Similarly, people do not generally ask to be labeled a "national treasure", even if they bask in that honor when it is given, and I feel someone who has lost that honor, guilty or not, doesn't deserve any special penalty beyond what he or she earns otherwise.

Just my $0.02 worth, as usual. Your thoughts?

Tags: academia, biology, cloning, ethics, hwang woo suk, korea, science, south korea, stem cell research, stem cells

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