Friday, December 16, 2005

The Half Empty Implications of the Hwang Affair

Is the Hwang Woo Suk affair the WMD issue of stem cell research? Does it fuel the foes of embryonic stem cell work? How will it affect the California stem cell agency?

Just some of the questions being addressed as the affair has blossomed from cash-for-eggs to possible outright fraud.

In California, as elsewhere, the Korean stem cell scandal is something of a half-empty, half-full matter. Supporters say it demonstrates the need for solid research with top notch oversight and well thought out rules. On the other hand, foes certainly will use it to argue that stem cell researchers cannot be trusted. But there is little doubt that the tangled controversy will create confusion and uncertainty on the part of the public about stem cell research, which has recently enjoyed generally good press.

For CIRM it arguably creates an unfavorable climate for the sale of tens of millions of dollars in notes sorely needed to finance the agency. However, a case certainly will be made that now is the time to get behind CIRM and its high standards.

Zach Hall, president of CIRM, was somewhat circumspect in a statement:

“The withdrawal of the results by Drs. Schatten, Hwang and the South Korean group is a serious setback for stem cell research in the area of somatic cell nuclear transfer. Such incidents have happened before in science and are always unfortunate both for the field and for the scientists involved. The good news is that many talented researchers will continue their work on nuclear transfer and I am confident that the field will recover and quickly move ahead.”

The Center for Policy and Genetics in Oakland, a longtime CIRM critic, said on its web site:

"Given that investigative journalists, not scientists, uncovered the falsified data, how can the senior US and British scientists who asked the media to refrain from questioning the 'validity of the experiments' justify their request?"
The center continued:
"Now that it is clear that the voluntary guidelines for embryonic stem cell research recommended by lead scientific bodies in the US are inadequate, how can we move to put in place enforceable regulations that will protect women and allow legitimate embryonic stem cell research to advance?"
Reporter Gina Kolata of the New York Times touched on one of the deeper implications of the affair. She quoted Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University, as saying it "raises questions about whether the science is good."
"'Good as in true and real and morally worthy of our funding,' she explained. 'That is so most especially in this twilight sort of terrain with a lot of open questions that people disagree about. 'Is this our version of WMD.?' Dr. Zoloth said."
Writing in the Wall Street Journal, reporters Antonio Regalado and Gordon Fairclough said:
"Regardless of the outcome, the case once again underscores the limitations of top scientific journals in verifying the results of the research they publish. Journals typically recruit independent reviewers to review papers. But such reviews don't involve actually repeating the experiments, which makes intentional fraud difficult to detect."
John Rennie, editor in chief of Scientific American, wrote online:
"How much of a colossal black eye will this scandal give to embryonic stem cell work in general? I commented on that point previously, back when it looked like Hwang's headaches all centered on the research ethics. But outright fraud carries this to a whole new level. Frankly, I've been surprised that some of the usually vociferous opponents of embryonic stem cell research haven't been making more of a fuss about the Hwang affair all along. I kept waiting to hear them argue that the ethical laxity of the Korean lab only proved that the moral of judgment of stem cell researchers couldn't be trusted--that no matter what promises the scientists made to uphold human dignity in their work, they would surely start committing atrocities once they were allowed to operate freely. (My hunch is that the clear willingness of so many in the stem cell community to push for strong codes of scientific ethics has blunted this attack so far.) Something tells me that those kinds of criticisms will become much more common shortly."
One industry perspective came in a piece by Barbara Demick and Karen Kaplan in the Los Angeles Angeles Times. They quoted Michael West, president and chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology Inc. in Worcester, Mass., as saying his company "would redouble its research efforts now that there might be a fresh opportunity to be the first to create individualized embryonic stem cells."

"This is a chance for the U.S. to recapture the lead in this field," he was quoted as saying.

As for the opponents, Kolata talked to two, including Nigel Cameron, president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
"'Where's the beef? Where are those cures? Why is it that there is no private money going into this research? The business community values it at zero,'" Kolata quoted Cameron as saying.
She also quoted Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of anti-abortion activities at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, as saying,
"'In one sense, this puts us back to where we were before May of 2005, when there still was some uncertainty about whether this would work at all. In another sense it does illustrate in my mind how hype and ambition have gotten ahead of the science.'

"'How am I going to exploit it?' he said. 'You don't have to. It's just speaking for itself.'"
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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous2:27 PM

    Cameron--Where are the cures? Takes time. Biology can't be hurried, cells have to migrate, engraft and function. One must have several stages of pre-clinical, cGLP, cGMP, clinical stages, etc. No money? It's been an investment environment where the post-2000 public won't even invest in large pharma unless a company has 3 new drugs coming out, never mind a company 5 years out from anything. See, for example, StemCells Inc., running solely on private money and in clinical trials with adult stem cells....

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