A Spectacular Stem Cell Scandal

January 1, 2006. A remarkable story of scientific fraud, scandal and deceit has recently attracted international headlines. The scandal has its origins in South Korea, in the laboratory of Dr. Woo-suk Hwang of Seoul National University. Many promoters of human embryonic stem cell research have been watching the saga unfold with a kind of "collective mesmerized despair," as one commentator put it. Back in March of 2004, Dr. Hwang published a paper claiming to be the first person to produce cloned human embryos. About a year later, he published a second paper where he claimed to have produced stem cell lines which were tailor-matched to patients with specific diseases, again by using cloned embryos. The work was widely hailed as a groundbreaking achievement, perhaps even of such caliber as to draw the attention of the Nobel Prize Committee in Stockholm, Sweden. Dr. Hwang was on the fast-track to superstar-status in his native South Korea.
The first bump in the road came in November when allegations resurfaced that some of the eggs that he had used for his cloning experiments came from women who worked in his laboratory, including a female graduate student. Dr. Hwang had always denied these persistent rumors, but eventually acknowledged not only that two junior researchers on his team had donated ova, but also that other women had received payments for ova used in his research.
This was followed by another stunning disclosure by one of Dr. Hwang's collaborators. He opened the floodgates when he announced that the celebrated patient-specific stem cells were fraudulent. Dr. Hwang had massaged the data - nine of the cell lines referenced in the paper were apparently faked, and the authenticity of the remaining two was also doubtful. Soon other serious problems came to light regarding his publications. Seoul National University quickly launched an investigative probe because of the snowballing concerns over Dr. Hwang's work. Virtually all of his groundbreaking successes are now suspect, including his claim to be the first person to ever clone a dog, an afghan hound named Snuppy. The full extent of the fraud committed by Dr. Hwang may take months, or even years, to sort out.
How could such serious ethical violations occur, and on such a massive scale? There were dozens of people in Dr. Hwang's laboratory, and his most recent published paper had 25 contributing authors listed. How could they all have missed so much fraud and deceit? What really happened?
The backdrop against which this scientific work took place, a backdrop of ongoing hype about the medical potential of cloning, provides an important clue to answering that question. Dr. Hwang, and indeed nearly all advocates of cloning human embryos, have a long history of fibbing about miracle cures from their research. Ailments ranging from paralysis to Alzheimer's could be cured, they assure us, if the government would only give us more funds and loosen a few ethical restraints. Given the enormous pot of glory perceived by scientists at the end of that rainbow, researchers in their frantic rush have hardly paused to catch their breath and consider the deeper questions raised by this technology.
Dr. Hwang himself appears to have fallen prey to a grievous, but fairly common, ethical mistake: somewhere along the line, he concluded that good ends can justify evil means. He realized that a little data cooking could have good effects; it would be good for Korea; it would be good for the University; it would be good for funding his work, and it would be good for promoting belief in embryonic stem cells as a way to help sick people. He reasoned that as long as the ends were good, any ethical issues that might come up in the course of his research could be conveniently minimized and ignored. That approach to ethical thinking, of course, happens to be precisely the same approach taken by most human embryonic stem cell researchers when they try to justify the troubling research they do. They stress how their research may one day have good effects - possible cures for suffering patients - so any ethical issues that might come up regarding the destruction of embryonic human life can be minimized and ignored.
Stem cell researchers today routinely violate the most basic ethical norms regarding the protection of human subjects every time they make cell lines out of human embryos. Is it really such a surprise that some of these same researchers turn out to be involved in the greatest ethical scandal to befall science in decades? If Dr. Hwang and other researchers like him are willing to do something as ethically troubling as creating human life merely to extinguish it for its stem cells, why would they be particularly disturbed about cutting other ethical corners, like turning to vulnerable graduate students for their eggs, or fabricating data? Many researchers speak fondly of "codes of self-regulation" and "mechanisms of ethical oversight by scientists themselves." The serious transgressions of this scandal remind us how these vaunted codes and mechanisms amount to little more than smoke and mirrors when the researchers themselves take custody of the hen house.
The spectacle of the South Korean stem cell scandal strengthens the view that some stem cell scientists are not averse to playing fast and loose with the truth. The revolutionary medical advances they try to read in the tea leaves end up requiring serious ethical violations, both in the exploitation of vulnerable women, and especially in the sacrifice of innocent human life. It is not just Dr. Hwang's dishonesty and sleight of hand that gives a black eye to the field of human embryonic stem cell science. It is also the many other promoters of this renegade research, who have long been skirting or ignoring the moral concerns raised by their work. As Americans ponder this scandal, hopefully we will become more measured and less starry-eyed in our future assessments of human embryonic stem cell research. Especially when we come to be asked in state legislatures around the country to pour millions of dollars into an unproven and unethical science, one hopes that better judgment and stronger ethics will prevail. Perhaps we will finally have the courage to draw some long overdue ethical lines and choose to safeguard the youngest and most vulnerable members of our own human family by promoting the moral and scientific high ground. That high ground offers us a uniquely appealing path into the future, paved with new and exciting breakthroughs that are occurring, almost on a weekly basis, from morally praiseworthy forms of medicine such as adult and umbilical cord stem cell research.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org