On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

Archive for CELL


Working days, nights and weekends, with criminal charges hanging over his head, disgraced stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk is trying to climb the steep hill to rehabilitation. Assisted by a team of 30 in a private lab south of Seoul, he is working on cloning animal embryos. A colleague told AP that he dreams of working with cloned human embryos again. “There are many good research results that we want to boast about,” she says.However, editors of leading journals are cautious. “Any submission form Dr Hwang would take into consideration the irreparable harm that his previous misconduct has inflicted on the scientific enterprise,” says Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science, one of the journals duped by the Korean. And Curt Civin, editor of Stem Cells, who was also a victim of his fraud, says that he would worry about recidivism.

Somewhat surprisingly, Harvard researcher George Daley told an international meeting of stem cell scientists in Australia recently that Hwang’s research was genuinely original. He had been the first to create stem cell lines from a parthenote, an activated, unfertilised egg. ~ AP, Jun 21; Nature Reports Stem Cells blog, Jun 18   

Primate cloning

An American scientist has announced that he has been able to perform therapeutic cloning with a rhesus monkey. If this is confirmed, it would be first time that anyone has successfully cloned a primate. The news, from the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, in Cairns, Australia, excited scientists who believe that this foreshadows the possibility of human cloning. ~ news.com.au, Jun 19


There was excitement, too, on Capitol Hill, in Washington DC, over the stunning new research, which appeared in the journal Nature just before the House of Representatives voted to loosen restrictions imposed by President Bush on funding for embryonic stem cell research. In any case it came too late to influence the passage of the bill, which failed to get the numbers required to override the expected presidential veto.Was it just a coincidence? Some legislators thought not. “It is ironic that every time we vote on this legislation, all of a sudden there is a major scientific discovery that basically says, ‘You don’t have to do stem cell research,'” says Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel. “Convenient timing,” said bioethicist Arthur Caplan.

However, the Washington Post consulted experts on probability. Happenstance — or an underhanded plot to sink the bill? Skulduggery by American opponents of stem cell research? By rival British researchers bent on world domination? The experts backed coincidence. “Papers are coming out about embryonic stem cells so regularly that the odds are going to be high that some will come out when Congress is voting on them,” says David Ropeik, a Harvard expert in risk assessment. ~ Washington Post, Jun 10


Ten years ago there was Dolly the Scottish cloned sheep and the race towards therapeutic cloning was on. Ten years later there are Japanese mice and the race could be over. Three different groups reported last week that normal skin cells in mice can be reprogrammed to an embryonic state. “Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary. I’ve never worked with either,” says Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, who first unveiled the technique a year ago to sceptical colleagues.Now his results have been confirmed by two other teams, at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. The reprogrammed cells meet all the tests of pluripotent cells — they form colonies, propagate continuously and form cancerous growths called teratomas, as well as producing chimaeras. “Its unbelievable, just amazing,” says Hans Schöler, a German stem cell expert. “For me, it’s like Dolly. It’s that type of an accomplishment.”      What Yamanaka did was to take a mouse skin cell and introduce into it four proteins which trigger the expression of other genes to make it pluripotent. He calls the result induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). “It’s easy. There’s no trick, no magic,” he says.  

Naturally, it’s easy only for experts at the moment. In practice, the four transcription factors reprogram cells inefficiently — only 0.1% of the cells in a skin biopsy. Then these cells have to be isolated. But Yamanaka has developed a technique for this as well. And there are some worrying issues to contend with: one of the proteins seems to contribute to cancers in 20% of the chimaeric mice.

But Harvard researcher Chad Cowan says that it will change the field: “The most amazing thing about these papers is you now take this whole idea of reprogramming out of the hands of cloning specialists and put it into the hands of anyone who can do molecular and cell biology.” Now the race is on to apply the technique to human cells. “We are working very hard — day and night,” says Yamanaka.

Executives from embryonic stem cell companies were not optimistic about the new technique. Because it involves tinkering with the genome, it could be dangerous, in the opinion of Thomas B. Okarma, of Geron. Getting approval from regulatory authorities would become far more complicated. And the head of the team at the Whitehead Institute, Rudolph Jaenisch, still insists that therapeutic cloning remains “absolutely necessary”.

The ethical implications of this development were immediately seized upon by opponents of embryonic stem cell research. “Morally and practically, this new approach appears to be far superior,” commented Richard Doerflinger, a spokesman for the US Catholic bishops conference. ~ New York Times, Jun 7; Nature, Jun 7; Science, Jun 8   


A review of the state of cloning science in the journal Science by an American expert concludes that “our understanding is stalled at a fundamental level”. Jose Cibelli, of Michigan State University, supports therapeutic cloning, but points out that the basic science is still not well understood. Scientists, he says, have focused too much on “goal-directed” experiments and not on understanding how cloning actually works. They still do not know, for instance, which genes are responsible for reprogramming a cell when it is cloned.

“Unveiling the genes and pathways involved in the cloning procedure is the first step to creating reasonable approaches for generating human cells that can later be used in therapy,” he writes. “Only then will so-called (and still hypothetical) therapeutic cloning become obsolete.” ~ Science, May 18 


The South Korean government plans to invest nearly half a billion dollars into gaining pole position in global embryonic stem cell research. After the worst case of fake research in living memory, more scandal is not what it needs. But that is what is happening. As reported in last week’s BioEdge, Kwang Yul Cha, a Korean who is a front-runner to succeed Hwang Woo-suk as his nation’s premier stem cell researcher, is embroiled in a plagiarism scandal.

The increasingly messy dispute is described in the current issue of the British Medical Journal. Jeong Hwan Kim, a Korean doctor now working in Singapore, wrote a PhD on premature ovarian failure. His conclusions were published as a Korean-language paper in the Korean Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in January 2004. Much to his surprise, he discovered that substantially the same paper was published in English in the leading journal Fertility and Sterility in December 2005 without his knowledge. Six authors were listed — and he was not one of them. The leading author was his former boss, Dr Cha, and another was the head of genetics at CHA General Hospital, Sook Hwan Lee. 

Without going into all the claims and counter claims, the current situation is as follows. Dr Lee is now facing criminal copyright infringement charges in Korea. Dr Cha’s lawyers have accused Fertility and Sterility of defamation. The Korea journal has demanded that the American journal issue a retraction on the ground of duplicate publication. The CHA group has described Dr Kim as a bit player in the research whose email address was lost after he moved to Singapore.

The meat in the sandwich is Kwang Soo Kim, a Harvard professor who had joined the CHA research group only a short time before the scandal broke. He now has the unenviable task of both defending his colleagues and conducting his own campaign for Western standards of publication in Korea. If the issue cannot be smoothed over, a US$2.6 million research grant which CHA received from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is at risk.

Will a clear moral emerge from this tangled tale of cultural clashes, deceit, national pride and laboratory power plays? None, perhaps, except that the full spectrum of human failings is hard-wired into embryonic stem cell research and that professional and government regulators need to take this into account. ~ BMJ, Apr 7