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Saturday, December 03, 2005

South Korea's Cloning Crisis - New York Times

South Korea's Cloning Crisis - New York TimesDecember 4, 2005
South Korea's Cloning Crisis

South Korea's high-flying stem cell researchers - reputedly the best in the world at cloning - have stumbled badly in handling the ethical issues of their controversial craft. Worse yet, the research team's leader, a national hero in his homeland, lied in an effort to hide his ethical lapses. We can only hope that he has not also lied about the astonishing scientific achievements of his research team.

The South Korean team forged ahead of all its rivals by becoming the first to extract stem cells from cloned human embryos and the first to clone a dog, an enormously difficult feat. The team felt so confident in its skills that it even announced plans to open laboratories in the United States and England to create embryonic stem cell lines for researchers unable or reluctant to do so themselves.

Then came the ethics debacle. For the experiments, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk used eggs donated by two of his junior researchers, a practice forbidden by Western standards because there is no way a subordinate's donation can be truly voluntary when her job and her standing with colleagues may depend on her cooperation. One of his collaborators also paid some 20 other Korean women about $1,400 apiece for their eggs. That, too, is deplored by many Western ethicists who fear such payments inevitably exploit poor women desperate for money.

How harshly Dr. Hwang should be judged for such transgressions is a matter of dispute. Supporters claim that he was unaware of these transactions, which were legal at the time and whose ethical status was murky. Some American researchers also pay women for donating eggs, although the National Academy of Sciences has recommended against such payments. But what really torpedoed Dr. Hwang was the cover-up: his repeated lies to the effect that his eggs were donated by unpaid volunteers. These misrepresentations led his most prominent American collaborator to sever ties because his trust had been shaken.

Ten days ago, Dr. Hwang apologized for lying and stepped down as head of his new research center, although he will continue his pioneering work as a researcher. In South Korea, the public has rallied to his defense and women there are signing up in droves to donate eggs. South Korea seems to be emerging from the crisis by imposing even stricter egg donation standards than apply in this country.

The key unresolved issue is whether lying about egg donations suggests that the Korean team may have lied about its scientific results. So far there is no evidence of that. Indeed, American collaborators and observers remain confident that the team's achievements were real. But science is an enterprise that relies heavily on trust. The Koreans should not be surprised if their next scientific breakthrough is greeted with extreme caution.

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