Scientist: Embryonic Stem Cell Research at Square One After Hwang-Gate

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jan 19, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Scientist: Embryonic Stem Cell Research at Square One After Hwang-Gate

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by Steven Ertelt Editor
January 19
, 2007

London, England ( — One of Great Britain’s top researchers says that embryonic stem cell research is back to square one thanks to the impact of a scandal last year involving Hwang Woo-suk. Hwang was a South Korean scientist who falsely claimed to have made great strides in the research.

Hwang and his team wrote papers saying they had been able to use human cloning techniques to create human embryos.

The success would have provided scientists with more embryonic stem cells to use in studies, though it would mean the destruction of human life.

The papers also claimed Hwang’s team was able to clone patient-specific embryonic stem cells that would overcome the rejection issues where a patient’s immune system refuses to accept the cells for treatment.

Both claims turned out to be false and it has been a painful reality check for the controversial science.

"In terms of the science, it has really taken us back to square one," Dr. Stephen Minger, a stem cell researcher from King College London, told the BBC. "Nobody has got close to doing what Dr. Hwang claimed to have done."

Minger fears that embryonic stem cell science won’t any major progress for years to come because there is a lack of human eggs to use in research and obtaining them from women poses numerous ethical problems.

"Hwang seemed to have all the resources and an endless supply of human eggs to use," he told the BBC. "But here and elsewhere people cannot push this field forward because there is a profound shortage of eggs — and this is a major problem."

Professor Julian Savulescu, from Oxford University, talked about Hwang’s downfall in a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics and said the conditions that allowed Hwang to conduct his research don’t normally exist elsewhere.

"Hwang credited his ‘success’ to plentiful funds, abundant oocytes (eggs), and a supportive — mostly unregulated — political and legal environment," Savulescu wrote. "[He] met with many pressures but few constraints; the choices he made at each juncture made his decline inevitable."

Minger concluded that more than a year after the Hwang scandal first broke, scientists can no longer expect to make the same kind of Earth-shattering advances so quickly.

"One year on, we are a lot more sober and less ‘starry-eyed’," he said.