… the harder they fall

Hiding behind evolution’s victory in a Pennsylvania district court room this week is something that has the potential to become an even bigger embarrassment for science.

In August, Woo Suk Hwang was Korea’s “king of cloning” (New Scientist, 3 August 2005. And he wasn’t just the king of animal (or more specifically, Afghan hound) cloning; he was most famous for his success with human embryonic stell cells.

All that began to unravel last month when his American co-author Gerald Schatten announced that some of the eggs Hwang used for his experiments were donated by junior staff in his lab; a serious ethical breach (at least for Westerners; in South Korea the women were hailed as heroes rather than portrayed as victims). Hwang admitted to everything, resigned, and was hospitalised for stress.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, due to media pressure Hwang was forced to admit to Science, who published his last two ground-breaking papers, that some of his data was flawed. At first it seemed that the corrections he was making wouldn’t alter his findings, but last Friday (16 December), Hwang and his co-authors retracted their 2005 paper. Their 2004 article is now being re-examined too.

This whole chain of events erases scientists’ excitement over Hwang’s achievements and for him and his co-authors it is certainly a personal tragedy (albeit self-afflicted to some degree). And it must be a blow for anyone suffering one of the many diseases that may one day be cured by stem cell therapy. Christopher Reeve must be turning over in his grave. But there are deeper concerns for the broader scientific community; deeper than those caused by Luk Van Parijs’s falsifications in physics.

Stem cell research has always been stymied by the far right’s “moral” obligations, and by laypeople’s squeamish imaginations conjuring up pictures of humanoid fetuses being murdered and dissected (the embryos used are really just bundles of cells). But the uphill battle that Western stem cell researchers faced when trying to carry out their work was at least somewhat alleviated by the knowledge that the work was being done, albeit not by them. But Hwang has given his detractors the perfect ammunition: he didn’t follow ethical guidelines when obtaining the eggs crucial to his research, and he falsified his data. The conclusions they’ll draw: Hwang is a bad, bad man, and what’s more, his research didn’t even work. Extrapolate that out to all stem cell researchers and suddenly they’re all unethical and wastefully ineffectual.

Stem cell research, both fact and philosophy, is certainly worse off. If I’m right in assuming that at least some of the anti-stem cell mob are also part of the intelligent design mob, it’s not such a victory in Pennsylvania. It’s a 1-1 draw if we’re lucky.

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