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What does the future hold for embryo stem cell science?

9 January 2006
By Dr Jess Buxton
genetics editor, BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 340
For those aiming to develop new, stem cell based therapies for conditions such as spinal cord injury and diabetes, 2005 will be remembered as the year in which hopes were first raised beyond everyone's expectations - only to be dashed, when apparently groundbreaking research was revealed to be an audacious hoax. The astounding news that South Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang and his colleagues fabricated the existence of embryo stem cell (ES cell) lines genetically-matched to patients has shocked the scientific community. The Science paper describing the advance has now been fully retracted, and an investigation into other work carried out by Hwang's team at Seoul National University is due to report its findings tomorrow. But what effect will the revelations have on the stem cell field, and indeed, the public image of science as a whole?

The Korean team seemed way ahead of everyone else when it reported making 11 cell-lines from 31 cloned embryos, using just 185 eggs. Scientists in the US and UK have managed to clone human embryos, but haven't yet managed to get them to survive long enough to derive stem cells. Hwang put his success down to the skill of his research team, and the use of fresh eggs, provided by fertile young donors. But it was questions over the ethically-dubious sourcing of these eggs and suspicions over the actual numbers used, that first lead to Hwang's achievements being scrutinised further. Allegations of 'untrustworthy' data soon followed. By the end of the year, the Korean cell-lines were exposed as fakes, and Hwang had fallen spectacularly from grace.

Groups opposed to all ES cell research have been quick to point to the Korean fraud as evidence that such work should be stopped, even before it has really started. But this view discounts the genuine, vital work being carried out by every other stem cell scientist around the world. The promise of new therapies for a host of different diseases remains - although whether they will come from ES or other types of stem cell is still unknown. It may be that public banks of ES cell lines - similar to blood banks - offer a more realistic hope for clinical applications than individual, genetically-matched cells. Or, it could be that ES cells will never be used therapeutically, but instead will be mined for rich seams of information on poorly-understood conditions such as motor neurone disease. Who knows? But one thing is certain: the only way to find out is to allow scientists to keep doing the research, by providing adequate funds and a supportive regulatory framework.

Of course, the other factor vital for the successful application of new scientific research is public support. In the wake of the stem cell scandal, some researchers have expressed fears that the public image of science as a whole has been irreparably damaged. But perhaps it is more likely that most people recognise that scientific fraud is big news precisely because it is so unusual. However, it remains crucial that the potential of human ES cell research is conveyed accurately - without raising false hopes, and by putting advances into context. The same is true of many other areas of human reproductive, genetic and embryo science - which, touching as they do on the beginnings of life, raise unique ethical, social and legal issues.

Throughout 2006, the BioNews team will continue to publish the latest news and informed comment in these exciting areas of science and policy. BioNews is solely dependent on public donations and sponsorship. If you can help us do so, then please consider donating securely to BioNews at any time using your credit or debit card. Simply go to the webpage and follow the instructions on the page. Meanwhile, Progress Educational Trust (PET) - the UK charity that publishes BioNews - will continue to provide information and facilitate balanced public debate on these topics. Anyone wishing to further support PET's work can help by becoming a PET Friend, (see the website). PET and BioNews staff and volunteers look forward to once again providing a balanced, authoritative information source and agenda-setting debate for the public and professionals alike during the coming year.

3 May 2009 - by Heidi Colleran 
South Korea's Presidential Committee on Bioethics has granted the first human embryonic stem (ES) cell research licence since their preeminent research scientist fell spectacularly from grace amidst allegations of scientific fraud and embezzlement, over three years ago. Cha Medical Center in the South Korean capital, Seoul, has...
17 April 2007 - by MacKenna Roberts 
The journal Cloning and Stem Cells has announced on its website that it has pulled a scientific research paper from publication, pending the outcome of an investigation into the research data's accuracy. The research was submitted by a team of researchers at Seoul National University (SNU) led...
4 December 2006 - by Heidi Nicholl 
Science, the journal which published fraudulent stem cell research by disgraced Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang, has announced the results of a committee set up to review the editorial procedures that allowed the work to be published and to advise on how to avoid similar mistakes in...
20 August 2006 - by Heidi Nicholl 
Hwang Woo-Suk, the Korean scientist at the centre of the faked cloning scandal last year, has returned to the lab and resumed his research on animals. Hwang, who was sacked from his position at Seoul National University following the scandal, is thought to have secured private funding...
31 July 2006 - by Heidi Nicholl 
A controversial scheme to extend the practise of 'egg sharing' has been approved by the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to provide greater numbers of eggs for embryonic stem (ES) cell research. The practise of egg-sharing is currently allowed where a woman may receive discounted...
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