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Opinion: A closer look at stem cell research

by M. L. Tina Stevens and Diane BeesonOakland Tribune
January 18th, 2006

ONGOING investigations into cloning researcher Hwang Woo Suk's apparently fraudulent results are seeing American researchers and bioethicist apologists disavowing any connection between Korea's scandal and the integrity of embryonic stem cell research more generally.

Hwang, recently honored as a hero in the field, is an aberration, we are told. The scientific community bears no taint.

Distancing Hwang's project from the larger cloning effort, Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology scolds in a recent Washington Post article that "while (Hwang) played his games," cures have been held up.

Biotech industry-favored bioethicist Laurie Zoloth soothes in an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times that "We can hope that with good codes ... good oversight ... good law and a good scientific process ... the story (scientists tell us) is true."

Should taxpayers trust the story? Is Hwang's debacle merely failed personal integrity? Sloppy lab methods, perhaps? Or is it an extreme case of succumbing to the pressures of national pride, international competition and the lure of vast commercial reward?

The fact is, science no longer operates in the culture of service that induced Jonas Salk to donate his polio vaccine to the public in the 1950s.

Since 1980, when the Bayh-Dole legislation permitted universities and their researchers to patent creations funded by public money, and the Supreme Court decision Chakrabarty v. Diamond allowed human-modified organisms to count as patentable material, "science" has made lurching efforts to morph into a mega-buck commercial venture.

In this political culture, science-entrepreneurs were induced to promise cures (though promulgators knew claims were based on unreplicated results) that helped loosen public purse strings when venture capital smelled a bad deal and declined financial backing.

Troubling concerns resist disavowals. What motivated an American scientist to sign as a co-author of Hwang's paper if he was not integral to the research?

Why do science publishing rules allow it? Moreover, it wasn't Dr. Hwang who convinced Ron Reagan, on the basis of unreplicated results, to tell millions of TV viewers that embryonic stem cell research would yield everybody their own personalized cures kit.

It wasn't Hwang who spent $35 million barraging voters with advertisements to persuade them that passing Proposition 71, which would make somatic cell nuclear transfer a constitutional right and authorize $3 billion to get the research done, could "save the life of someone you love," as they said in an advertisement.

It wasn't Hwang who sued pro-choice feminists opposing the initiative in (a failed) attempt to prevent them from publishing in the Voters Guide that SCNT constituted human embryo cloning and would require thousands of women's eggs.

It wasn't Hwang who reneged on the promise to share royalties with the state.

Who was it who did all that? Why should we trust them?

Until citizens can access unbiased information on complex scientific developments, questions regarding whom to trust must be left to legislators, who must keep this in mind: The research is in its infancy, and the scientists relied upon for information have intractable conflicts of interest that must be brought under control.

Maybe embryonic stem cell cloning will yield treatments, maybe it won't. Claims beyond this are hype. Attention should flow to replicated results _ including the penchant of embryonic stem cells to produce tumors _ not the parade of claims, hopes and hype.


M. L. Tina Stevens, author of "Bioethics in America: Origina and Cultural Politics," teaches in the History Department at San Francisco State University. Diane Beeson is a medical sociologist and professor emerita in the Department of Sociology and Social Services at California State University, East Bay.



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