Reflections on South Korea's stem cell scandal
Does this set back embryonic stem cell research?
I think it does. Hwang was out there in the lead, and the embryonic stem cell community was looking to him, thinking that [his] technique was the one that would propel these therapeutic lines made from embryonic stem cells forward. Now that that seems to beat least for the momentnot the case, the embryonic stem cell scientists need to gather themselves together again. I think that we'll have positive results coming fairly soon, in the next six months or so, and that the method that was done in animals will also be done in human lines again.
It's strange to think the South Korean group was going ahead with plans to distribute stem cells around the world through the World Stem Cell Hub while they must have known their data were no goodthey may not really have been able to do what they claimed to be able to do.
It's stunning to me, too. I met with them earlier this year. It was incredible to see this group of scientists. They'd gotten off the plane from South Korea, and Dr. Hwang is quite simply a rock star. I sat with him and his group in the lobby of San Francisco International Airport, and regular South Koreans would come off the gangplank from the jetwithin 20 minutes, we were surrounded by people who wanted his autograph, who wanted to see him. Then to realize all of this was built on a house of cards, if that's the caseit's a pretty sobering thing, to deceive so publicly.
The South Korean government has strongly supported Hwang's research, but the U.S. government is not allowed to fund most embryonic stem cell research. What's the future of such research here?
I'm not a pessimist by nature, but it's very hard for me to see how the current political environment can change in a way that can permit embryonic stem cell research in the United States. It's not just the last five years of George Bush's policythere's a long history of United States policy that has prohibited reproductive research on embryos. Congress, for example, has prohibited research on early embryos since the 1970s.
A lot of the groundbreaking research is coming from laboratories outside the United States.
Even though the South Korean thing is quite a mess right now, that's only one lab out of dozens and dozens of labs in different countries that are working on embryonic stem cell research. Singapore is a very fertile area for this. Israel, Englandthe U.K. in general is moving along very quickly. Northern EuropeSweden, Norwaythey're doing some pretty amazing things. I think the world is going to step up and fill in the gaps. The sad thing is that no one can drive a biomedical research agenda like the United States.