South Korea Scandal Casting Doubt on Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 16, 2005   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

South Korea Scandal Casting Doubt on Embryonic Stem Cell Research Email this article
Printer friendly page

by Steven Ertelt Editor
December 16, 2005

Washington, DC ( — Admissions from one of the top embryonic stem cell research teams in the world that they falsified their research has the world scientific community worried that it has tainted the already controversial field of embryonic stem cell research. Pro-life groups say the scandal proves what they’ve said all along that the focus should be placed on adult stem cells.

Yesterday, one of South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk’s partners admitted that a paper his team published claiming to have created 11 patient-specific embryonic stem cell lines was a hoax. At least nine of the lines never existed and the authenticity of the other two is doubtful.

The president of Seoul National University called yesterday’s news a "day of infamy" and Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center for Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University, told the New York Times the news was a "tragic turn" for the disputed science.

"We depend entirely on the truthfulness of the scientific community," Dr. Zoloth said. "We must believe that what they are showing us and what they say has been demonstrated is worthy of our concern and attention."

Nigel Cameron, president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future at the Illinois Institute of Technology, told the Times that the scandal is a "tragedy for science."

Cameron told the Times the revelations show embryonic stem cell research "is a hype balloon and it’s been pricked."

Other scientists, however, are quick to defend their sacred cow. Arthur Caplan has been a longtime apologist for the embryonic research, which destroys human life and has yet to cure a single patient.

"We know that in science, speed kills if you go fast, and that’s what the South Koreans did," he told the Times. "It’s also clear that they will do whatever it takes to right this ship. At the end of the day, critics of stem cell research will try to use this, but they won’t get very far. People bending the rules in other countries doesn’t reflect badly on us."

Cameron says the political implications of the South Korea scandal are huge.

Before the scandal, the supposed progress Hwang’s team had made prompted politicians to claim the United States was falling behind and that more taxpayer funds were needed for the controversial research.

"[W]e panicked into thinking that we have to join in," he explained.

He told the Times the problems should make people ask: "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."

Richard Doerflinger, who monitors bioethics issues for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the New York newspaper that he’s argued for some time that advocates of embryonic stem cell research have been exaggerating their claims.

"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," Mr. Doerflinger said. "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."