Embryonic Stem Cell Research Mired in Ethics Row

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - An ethics storm surrounding one of the world's leading embryonic stem cell researchers could increase public wariness about the controversial work, some scientists say.

South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk, a national hero in his country for back-to-back world firsts in embryonic stem cell (ESC) research, is under fire at home and abroad, accused of unethical practices and misleading scientific colleagues.

Early last year, the Seoul National University professor was feted by the ESC research establishment for successfully cloning a human embryo and extracting a stem cell line from it.

In a follow-up success last May, Hwang announced that his team had now created nearly a dozen new ESC lines, which for the first time carried the DNA of ill or injured patients.

Proponents say ESCs may one day cure a range of diseases; pro-life and other opponents are against the research because human embryos are destroyed in the process.

Critics denounced the work, which the U.S.-based Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity (CBHD) said "produces human embryos for the explicit purpose of fatally mining them to obtain bodily materials for experimental purposes."

The CBHD also referred to the "exploitation of women" who donate eggs.

It is this latter issue that is now haunting Hwang.

For months he has dodged allegations that he used human eggs from two junior female research assistants.

On Tuesday, however, Seoul's leading Chosun Ilbo newspaper cited an anonymous source close to Hwang's team as confirming the claim.

Using donated specimens from junior staffers is considered unethical because coercion may be a factor.

The egg-retrieval procedure is invasive, entails hormonal drugs to stimulate the ovaries, and is known to carry low-probability - but potentially serious - risks, including future fertility difficulties and a disorder called ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome.

In another development this week, one of Hwang's colleagues, Roh Sung-il, admitted to reporters that, without consulting Hwang, he had paid about 20 other women almost $1,500 each in 2002 for donating eggs.

Payment for eggs is not illegal in Korea, but is frowned on ethically. Roh conceded that some of the women may have donated the eggs because they needed the money.

Earlier this month an American collaborator, Prof. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, severed ties with the Korean, citing new information indicating that Hwang had not been open with him about the procurement of human eggs for the experiments.

Subsequently, a San Francisco-based in-vitro fertilization clinic pulled out of a new international consortium led by Hwang, whose aim is to provide hundreds of embryonic stem cell lines to world researchers.

The consortium, known as the World Stem Cell Hub, was launched just weeks ago at a ceremony in Seoul attended by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and top figures in the world of stem cell research.

The controversy has prompted considerable debate among ethicists.

"There are serious questions about whether the oversight process was sufficient, whether there was adequate informed consent, and whether there are substantial differences in the standards that govern research in South Korea and the United States," wrote David Magnus and Mildred Cho in a commentary on the American Journal of Bioethics website.

Question of trust

A report by the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine several years ago said payment for egg donation raised two ethical questions.

They were: "Do recruitment practices incorporating such incentives sufficiently protect the interests of [egg] donors?" and "Do financial incentives devalue human life by
treating [eggs] as property or commodities?"

When Hwang reported his first breakthrough in February 2004, scientific reports attributed his success to the team's use of "fresh" eggs from "young" donors.

Hwang said at the time that 16 Korean women had donated 242 eggs for that research project. They were obtained voluntarily and "none of the egg donors, their families and relatives received any benefit from the donation."

The Korean newspaper JoongAng Ilbo reported Wednesday that the government planned law changes or even a presidential decree by year's end to revise the country's bio-ethics regulations, especially with regard to egg donation.

A Seoul National University review panel is also investigating a possible ethics breach.

Some worry the controversy could be damaging to the broader field of ESC research.

Writing on an American Journal of Bioethics weblog, editor-in-chief Glenn McGee expressed concern that Hwang "could firmly establish in the public mind the view that stem cell researchers as a group cannot be trusted, not only because they are in a hurry and miss things along the way, but because they may be willing to deceive their own peers and the public about their devotion to ethics."

The weekly scientific journal Nature shared the concern. An editorial in the current edition said a thorough Korean government investigation was needed "not just for the sake of scientific integrity in South Korea, but to help persuade skeptics worldwide that research on human embryonic stem cells is being done ethically."

Last June the Florida-based Genetics Policy Institute, which campaigns on behalf of ESC research, gave Hwang its first Global Achievement Award at a stem cell policy and advocacy summit in Texas.

It described the Korean as a "true pathfinder and humanitarian."

Seoul's Yonhap news agency reports that Hwang had called a press briefing for Thursday to address the controversy.

See earlier stories:
Stem Cell Advance Heightens Ethical Tussle Ahead of House Debate (May 20, 2005)
Koreans in Human Cloning Breakthrough (Feb. 12, 2004)

Subscribe to the free CNSNews.com daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow