The Stem-Cell Scam

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 Hwang had asked that the paper be withdrawn and Science was happy to comply.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