The Stem-Cell Scam

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The big news
on Friday morning was that the South Korean stem cell researcher
Dr. Hwang Woo Suk has been accused by
a former collaborator of fabricating the evidence in favor of therapeutic
cloning. Nine of eleven stem-cell lines, supposedly created by Dr.
Hwang using the technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer,
were apparently faked, according to his one-time co-author, Dr.
Roh Sung Il.

Dr. Hwang
emerged from the hospital where he had been treated for "stress"
and held a belated press conference denying some of the charges.
Dr. Roh promptly called him a liar. But Dr. Hwang did ask Science
magazine to withdraw the "breakthrough" paper that the
journal had published under his byline. Earlier in the week his
American co-author, Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh
had asked that his name be removed from the same paper. He had "substantial
doubts about its accuracy." Science was reluctant to comply
at that point, saying that all the co-authors (there were 24 of
them) would have to agree as to the paper’s defects. But by Friday
Dr. Hwang had asked that the paper be withdrawn and Science was
happy to comply.

But the damage
already done to the cause of bio-engineering is immense. Gina Kolata
published an article for the New York Times under the headlined
"Clone Scandal: ‘A Tragic Turn’ for Science." Earlier
this year, Dr. Hwang also claimed to have been the first to clone
a dog, and the evidence for that, too, will have to be reviewed.
Dr. Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass.
has expressed doubts about the parenthood of Snuppy, the cloned
dog.

Since Dr.
Hwang’s claims of unprecedented success in the field of cloning
began appearing earlier this year, our leading newspapers and journals
have been filled with the anguished cries of Hollywood producers,
Nobel Prize winners and famous journalists. America is falling behind
the rest of the world, they have said. Our ethical objections to
the latest techniques are outmoded, an anachronism in the modern
world; as demonstrated by the tiny but up-to-date and fully funded
outpost in Seoul. How could we hope to remain proud Americans and
world leaders if we insisted on denying our scientists access to
the Federal money that they need? It was an argument intended to
appeal to just those Americans who believe that nothing should be
allowed to stand in the way of American primacy. This equated American
advancement with government spending — the concealed premise
of the argument.

Some still
cling to that fallacious equation. The Coalition for the Advancement
of Medical Research, a lobbying group backed by U.S. universities
— themselves heavily reliant on government money for research
— said that the South Korean fiasco "is just another
reason that this field of research should be allowed to be conducted
in the U.S." under government supervision. In South Korea,
the now-repudiated findings were government financed all along.
It’s important to emphasize that stem cell research in the U.S.
is perfectly legal. It’s just that the access to Federal funding
is restricted. As I point out in my recently published book
The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
(Regnery,
2005), in which I discuss some of these issues and review the lengthy
history of fraud in the cloning field, privately funded biotechs
indeed have taken a stab at stem cell research. But it turned out
to be far more difficult than had been at first suspected. The share
price of one or two leading biotechs collapsed when those difficulties
became apparent. At that point there was a big push by patient advocacy
and activist groups to reach into the taxpayers’ pockets on a state
by state basis.

Californians
duly supported a $3 billion initiative. But don’t look for stem
cell treatments any time soon. The developments in South Korea are
an embarrassment to some, especially to the hapless taxpayers of
South Korea, but if these developments have the effect of making
us all more suspicious of breakthroughs made in the name of bio-engineering,
we will all have learned a useful lesson. And we will have learned
it at the expense of Korean taxpayers rather than at our own expense.

December
19, 2005

Tom
Bethell [send him mail]
is a senior editor of The American Spectator. The
Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
(Regnery) was published
November 14.

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