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Year in Review: Research cloning: Next front in the stem cell wars? (Part 4 of 5)

Genetic Crossroads
December 14th, 2006

Hwang Woo-Suk
Hwang Woo-Suk

bullet Scientific fraud of the century

At the end of 2005, celebrated stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-Suk was accused of improperly acquiring eggs for his cloning research, and of misleading and injuring some of the women who provided them. Soon, allegations of fraudulent and fabricated data in what had been considered a breakthrough scientific paper were added.

Early in 2006, the scandal grew to include charges that Hwang had embezzled funds from his millions of dollars in public grants. He now faces criminal charges. The downfall of South Korea's "Supreme Scientist" made headlines throughout the world, and his home nation reexamined its research priorities.

The scandal reached the US as well. One coauthor of Hwang's retracted papers, the University of Pittsburgh's Gerald Schatten, was investigated by his employer. It was revealed that Schatten had filed a patent application on cloning techniques without informing his Korean colleagues. Another of Hwang's collaborator, Jose Cibelli, presently at the University of Michigan and formerly at Advanced Cell Technology, had to resign from an advisory committee of the California stem cell research institute. And the journal Science reconsidered and revised its peer review policies in light of the Hwang debacle.

Many scientists asserted that the Hwang scandal, while unfortunate, demonstrated that the system worked: The fraud was caught. They failed to note that junior scientists who posted their initial suspicions of Hwang's work on blogs felt they had to do so anonymously. Moreover, it was investigative journalists, not scientists, who uncovered the ethical breaches in South Korea.

bullet Australia and Missouri approve research cloning

Australia ended its three-year moratorium on the creation of embryos via cloning for stem cell research (1,2). The law maintains a ban on reproductive cloning, and will be reviewed in three more years. The government intends to implement a licensing and regulation system, similar to that in the United Kingdom.

In the US, the state of Missouri passed a hotly contested voter initiative that in fact did little more than restate the legality of embryonic stem cell research and research cloning. Its actual policy impact is minimal; there was little chance that research cloning would ever have been prohibited in the state. Although supporters backed the proposal with $30 million, which shattered spending records in the state, it passed by only two percent.

The rhetoric on both sides of the bitter debate was misleading and exaggerated, with advocates speaking of "equal access" to cures and treatments, and opponents purposely confounding research and reproductive cloning. The issue spilled over into the state's tight Senate race, though its impact on the narrow victory of Democrat Claire McKaskill was unclear.


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