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Will stem cell research recover from the Woo Suk Huang affair?

Experts estimate that the status of the research has been damaged and now conservative elements will try to take advantage of it, to cause damage to scientific progress

By: Sarah Bardsley, Scientific American
Stem cells: research in a crash?

Woo Suk Huang of Seoul National University previously took the field of embryonic stem cells by storm, which is still in its infancy. The scientists behind him are only now realizing why: his data was fake. At the end of 2005, Huang admitted to forgery and conducting dubious transactions and this admission effectively mimics one of the most promising discoveries in the field, stem cell lines that are personally adapted to patients. Many wonder how much this crisis, which ethics expert Jonathan Moreno of the University of Virginia calls "the biggest ethical disaster in microbiology," will affect the public debate about embryonic stem cells (ESCs).
In 2004, Huang and his research partners began to report amazing progress in the field of transplanting the nuclei of body cells (a process also known as medical cloning). In this process, the nuclei of adult cells are transplanted into embryos to create colonies of stem cells that are individually adapted to patients. But last year it was revealed that only one of these successes actually took place, and that was the cloning of a dog. Since then the stem cell community has been trying to assess the damage.
At worst, says Alan Coleman of ES Cell International in Singapore, "the story will taint the entire field." This will happen if the public does not know how to separate the limited field of research that the Koreans were at the forefront of, and the main research conducted on embryonic stem cells harvested from existing cell lines. This is the only type of research in the field that the US government funds, and it is more grounded, both scientifically and ethically, because it does not use new human eggs.

Support is expected to decrease
Andrew Ferguson, president of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and opponents of fetal stem cell research, confirms this prediction and predicts that due to the current failure, "the likelihood that the average American will support stem cell research will decrease" if you also take into account the financial investments, the ethical problems and the lack of scientific evidence. Such an upheaval would be disastrous for American researchers who rely on public enthusiasm, translated into private donations and local state legislation, rather than federal dollars as a source of support.
At best, the scandal only "turned back the clock" regarding medical cloning, so that "everything is open in the field," says Ivan Snyder of the Burnham Institute in La Hoya, California, who will continue to engage in research similar to that of the Koreans. Personal stem cell colonies are considered essential "for the study of diseases in a petri dish. Through them it is possible to advance in ways that are difficult to foresee in other ways," explains Douglas Melton, one of the directors of the Harvard Institute for Stem Cell Research. According to him, the obstacles facing those trying to succeed where Huang failed are essentially technical, not biological, and the money being poured into this research is not wasted.
Time will tell if the financiers will agree with this approach. Moreno notes that "the impact will not be as great as it might have been a year ago," because four states, California, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey, have already committed to funding embryonic stem cell research. (Although New Jersey recently postponed debate on the stem cell bill, which was introduced in 2005.) As for institutional funding, according to bioethicist Arthur Kaplan of the University of Pennsylvania, "the patient lobby is solid in its support," certainly a positive sign for a scientific field preparing for battle.
In addition to the future of research, a more general question is how the scientific community will deal with the fact that there are apparently no boundaries to curb inappropriate behavior. Proponents point out that Huang's flawed research would have been discovered eventually, when other researchers would have tried to repeat his experiments without success. And as for moral responsibility, in their opinion the guidelines of the American Academy of Sciences, published seven months before Huang's act of deception, and the very fact that it was discovered by other scientists, are evidence of the ability of the scientific community to criticize itself.
But even the most ardent proponents must agree that the peer review process required to publish articles in the scientific press is not designed to uncover cases of intentional cheating. They admit that no one might have noticed Huang's falsified data and the unsanitary ways he obtained the eggs if we hadn't tipped him off. And this exposure, in turn, shifted the spotlight back to the lack of legislation in the US and the rest of the world.

like the wild west
"It's like the Wild West, with every state (in the US) doing as it pleases," says Stephen Teitelbaum of Washington University in St. Louis, who has tried to promote changes in the Bush administration's policies. "Nothing guarantees us that the research will be conducted in an ethical way, and there is a need for legislation on the subject." Others, including Kaplan, believe that international treaties will be needed to prevent problems of egg trafficking. One of the dangers is that without oversight, countries will withdraw from international scientific cooperation on stem cells. "If there are differences between standards, countries will become separatists," says Coleman.
A slowdown in progress will certainly occur in at least one area. According to Moreno "people will think twice before agreeing to scientific cooperation" after seeing how Gerald Shatten of the University of Pittsburgh, who was a senior partner in Huang's papers and who probably played a small role in the experiments themselves, was damaged by the affair. It is possible that scientists who wish to collaborate in the future will put a lot of effort into evaluating the research before agreeing to add their names, and the scientific journals will have to monitor very carefully the contribution of each scientist. And as for the scientific ties with South Korea in particular, Snyder reports that "some of the supporters who appoint us sent a message saying, in effect, 'Don't work with the Koreans.' They don't have a problem with the domain, but the Koreans are assigned right now."
In Korea, the changes should probably start from below, where a culture "saturated with distorted patriotism and extreme nationalism" prevails, as a professor from Seoul National University wrote in an editorial for the Korea Herald newspaper. Some even predict a 180 degree change in the way science is conducted there. "Korea will set up a particularly strict control system," speculates Kaplan. "They will emphasize high standards."
Despite all the questions raised by the offenses, many in the field hope that the public will simply focus on the real offender, Huang himself. Scientists doubt that his reputation will ever be restored because "he had a chance to confess, but he kept blaming other people," Coleman says. In the end, claims Moreno, "it is not about deep questions or crossing ethical lines for the purpose of research. It is about something that everyone agrees on: it is forbidden to lie."

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