Top Stem-Cell Researcher Resigns After Ethical Lapse

A South Korean stem-cell scientist accused of ethics violations apologizes to the public and resigns. He acknowledged that two scientists working for him voluntarily donated their own eggs for his stem-cell research.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The first scientists to clone a human embryo admitted today that there were ethical lapses in the way the research was carried out. At a news conference in Seoul, Woo Suk Hwang said he will step down as leader of the South Korean cloning team, and he apologized for his actions. Today's news may have a chilling effect on international collaborations. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has been following events in South Korea, and he joins us in our studio this morning.

Thanks for coming here so early.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Sure.

MONTAGNE: Tell us the nature of the ethical lapses that Hwang admitted making.

PALCA: Well, Renee, first I have to remind you that, you know, to make a cloned embryo, you take an adult cell DNA and put it into an egg from which you've removed the DNA, and then hopefully you get that to turn into an embryo. And they're not doing it to make a baby. They're making stem cells from these cloned embryos. But as I say, you need eggs, and it's not a very efficient process, and so you need a lot of eggs, generally speaking. And in the 2004 paper which they first announced their success in cloning an embryo, they used 242 eggs from 16 women. And now it appears that some of those women were paid. Now that's not illegal, and it wasn't illegal at the time, although it is now, but the ethical lapse seems to be that Hwang denied that they were paid, and now it turns out they were. Also, two of his junior colleagues donated eggs, and that can be considered coercive, because a junior colleague should be able to make a free donation and not have the head of the lab say, `It would be great if you did this,' not that he did, but, you know, there's that implication.

MONTAGNE: Why is this all coming out now, as you say, two years after the original research was published?

PALCA: Well, two weeks ago, actually, an American researcher, Gerald Schatten from the University of Pittsburgh, said he had been collaborating with Hwang, and he said he had evidence that these lapses had occurred and that he was severing all ties with the Koreans. And so that threw things into turmoil around the world and especially in Korea, and now this investigation and--has turned up that Hwang is now admitting these lapses.

MONTAGNE: Does any of this invalidate the actual science, the scientific research?

PALCA: Well, in a strictly scientific sense, no. The cloning work stands as it did, and Hwang has subsequently repeated it and shown that he can do it even more efficiently, and there are now rules in place that are--were intended to prevent this--just this sort of lapse. But you can be certain that these rules and the subsequent papers now will get additional scrutiny to make sure that the rules were followed.

MONTAGNE: Now this Korean scientist, Hwang, has been a national hero in his country, in South Korea. Why?

PALCA: Well, a couple reasons. First of all, it's really a remarkable achievement. I mean, it's not a trivial thing to clone any animal, and of course, to clone a human embryo is quite remarkable. The other thing is that they're not doing this just for a parlor trick. They're quite convinced in Korea, as a lot of scientists around the world are, that cloned embryos will wield cloned stem cells and that these cloned embryonic stem cells will become extremely important both for understanding disease and perhaps even treating disease. And there's been a steady stream of collaborator--scientists around the world going to Seoul, going to see how this research was done, going to this lab. And I have talked to a lot of them. They all come back extremely impressed with what Hwang has accomplished.

MONTAGNE: So what will this do to international collaborations, anything?

PALCA: Well, it's hard to say. As I said, Gerry Schatten has already said, `I'm concerned about these lapses, and I'm severing all connections.' The nature--you know, this is something that happened in the past, and it's something that happened and it's now been admitted to, so there may be forgiveness. But I think it's definitely made everybody in the community very nervous, because they know that this is ethically contentious work. They know some people think cloning of any sort shouldn't be done, and if they do do it, they're concerned that it be done with the highest possible ethical standards so there may be some rethinking in the coming weeks.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR's Joe Palca, thanks for joining us.

PALCA: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: Two bioethicists debate the question, `At what point are we human?' at npr.org.

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