On Bioethics

catholic moral standing on the special ethics of life

Archive for STEM


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


D-Day is approaching for embryonic stem cells, says the CEO of Geron, Tom Okarma. The world’s first clinical trial will begin early next year on patients with spinal cord injury in six trauma centres across the US.

Because of the intense scrutiny that these trials are sure to receive from the US Food and Drug Administration, from the media, and from hostile critics of the ethically contentious technology, extensive preparatory work has taken place. Animal tests have already showed that nerve cells grown from human embryonic stem cells can repair spinal cord injuries in rats. “Paralysed rats can walk again,” says the Financial Times, although this has been disputed by critics.

Mr Okarma claims that rapid progress has been made since human embryonic stem cells were first isolated in 1998. Even more ground could have been covered except for the intransigence of the Bush Administration. However, he and his supporters are wary of raising public expectations too high. Hans Kierstead, head of the embryonic stem cell team at University of California Irvine, says: “I find it unfair that people demand so much from such a young field. Just look at the strides we have already made.”

And Bob Klein, the chairman of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which has been authorised to a spend at least $3 billion over 10 years on stem cell research, told the BIO biotechnology conference in Boston recently that good spin doctors would be needed to put across the right message in the event of setbacks.

The ideological right is not asleep,” said Mr Klein. “They will be prepared to spin [any problems] to promote their opposition to embryonic stem cell research, and we’ll need a sophisticated fast- response messaging team to put across our message.” ~ Financial Times, May 9


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   


Bone marrow stem cells have been used to create heart valve cells, raising hopes that an entire heart could be grown from stem cells within 10 years. British heart surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub, of Imperial College London, extracted stem cells from bone marrow, cultivated them into heart valve cells, and the placed them on biodegradable “scaffolds”. They grew into 3cm wide disks of heart valve tissue. Later in the year, the valves will be tested on animals.Growing heart valves is a big step forward in scientists’ efforts to grow whole organs from stem cells. They have already grown tendons, cartilages and bladders from adult stem cells. 

Sir Magdi said the possibility of growing an entire heart was “an ambitious project but not impossible”. “If you wanted me to guess, I’d say ten years,” he said. “But experience has shown that progress that is happening nowadays make it possible to achieve milestones in a shorter time. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was sometime sooner than we think.” Daily Mail, Apr 5  


Once again, the US Senate will be debating embryonic stem cell research. It will consider two bills this week: one which is nearly the same as a bill vetoed by President Bush last year which will expand and encourage this research. The other is a compromise measure which will foster research on “dead” human embryos or on cells extracted from living embryos without destroying them. It also will support the creation of a stem cell bank for cells extracted from amniotic fluid and placentas.

The looming debate was the occasion for some thoughtful commentary from both sides of the debate. Harvard professor Michael Sandel, a supporter of destructive embryo research, points out in the Boston Globe that President Bush’s position is inconsistent. If he really does believe that embryos are human persons, surely he ought to seek to ban it completely, not merely deny it federal funding.

And in National Review an opponent, Yuval Levin, of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, zeroes in on an inconsistency in the first bill, which was passed last year by the House of Representatives. However, its supporters have now added provisions for funding alternatives such as reprogramming adult cells and deriving stem cells from amniotic fluid. These methods have shown great promise in recent months, probably more than embryonic stem cells. So what is the point of federal funding research for destructive methods “just at the moment when ethical alternatives may be emerging”, he asks. ~ National Review, Apr 9; Boston Globe, Apr 8; Reuters, Apr 9