Scientists with clay feet

hwang woo sukEmbryonic stem cell research pioneer Hwang Woo-suk had a really bad day yesterday. Dr. Hwang is the cloning superstar who was riding the express train to the Nobel Prize until a few weeks ago. He received Time magazine’s invention of the year award for his cloned puppy and earlier this month he won Scientific American‘s researcher of the year award.

A bit of background: In early 2004, Hwang produced the world’s first human embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. He faced a huge uproar a few weeks ago over the fact his research eggs were supplied by his subordinates — a no-no in the medical community because of the appearance or reality of coercion. And then there were the confirmed rumors that still other women were paid for their ova.

In May, Hwang’s team published proof it developed the world’s first human embryonic stem cells tailored to match the DNA of individuals. Yesterday, after weeks of heavy speculation, the news came out that the study was fraudulent.

In Korea, where Hwang is a national hero, the populace is dumbfounded. The country has been beating the U.S. in the global embryonic stem cell war based almost completely on the work of Dr. Hwang and his team, so the Korean press has been all over the story. Last week, a story on Catholic, Protestant, Confucian and Buddhist views toward embryonic stem cell research appeared in the Korea Times:

For the religious groups, the key question seems to be whether or not to consider embryonic stem cells, upon which Hwang’s cloning experiments are based, as a living entities. The three main religions that oppose Hwang’s research define stem cells as living creatures and therefore the destruction of stem cells for scientific purposes could be equivalent to murder. However, they are also in the position of having to persuade the public, the majority of whom applaud Hwang’s landmark research exploits.

One thing to watch for in coverage of this contentious topic is how some reporters covering stem cell research often fail to distinguish between stem cell research in general and embryonic stem cell research. In doing so, they incorrectly give the appearance that those who oppose research that requires the destruction of human embryos oppose the larger field. Here’s Reuters:

Hwang may brief reporters separately later on the case, which has wide ramifications for the already controversial field of stem-cell research. If the research proves to be flawed or false it would rank as one of the biggest science fraud cases in years.

“I am sure anti stem-cell activists will use this to show that there are problems with this science and that it is not effectively regulated,” said David Winickoff, assistant professor of bioethics at the University of California, Berkeley, by telephone.

John Rennie over at Scientific American gives a full rundown of the scandal and provides analysis:
better muppet

Frankly, I’ve been surprised that some of the usually vociferous opponents of embryonic stem cell research haven’t been making more of a fuss about the Hwang affair all along. I kept waiting to hear them argue that the ethical laxity of the Korean lab only proved that the moral of judgment of stem cell researchers couldn’t be trusted–that no matter what promises the scientists made to uphold human dignity in their work, they would surely start committing atrocities once they were allowed to operate freely.

Maybe they’re not making more of a fuss in the stories because no one is even talking to them. Or at least that’s the case with Reuters and BBC and ABC and Time. Perhaps someone should ask opponents of embryonic stem cell research what they think of these developments.

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  • ceemac

    Mollie writes:
    One thing to watch for in coverage of this contentious topic is how some reporters covering stem cell research often fail to distinguish between stem cell research in general and embryonic stem cell research. In doing so, they incorrectly give the appearance that those who oppose research that requires the destruction of human embryos oppose the larger field.

    I respond:
    Actually I believe that some pretty influential folks oppose all stem cell research. The most prominent woild be Leon Kass who heads (headed?) the President’s Bioethics Commission for Bush.

  • http://www.exceptionalmarriages.com Dr. Greg Popcak

    I think they’re not asking us because they feel no obligation to do so. It wasn’t long ago that a major jouralism org (actually, I think it was Columbia J-school, but I could be mistaken) had a conference which stated that ID proponents didn’t have to be consulted on stories of evolution because their positions were not scientific.

    The same, I suspect generalizes to many other situations where the MSM sees a debate as a confict between “science” and “Christian morality” instead of seeing it as a difference between two philosophical approaches to doing science.

    The MSM confuses “science” with materialism. By doing so, the MSM proves they don’t get science any more than they get religion.

    Greg

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Ceemac wrote:
    Actually I believe that some pretty influential folks oppose all stem cell research. The most prominent woild be Leon Kass who heads (headed?) the President’s Bioethics Commission for Bush.

    Mollie responds:
    Well, in this Congressional Research Service report (pdf.) Kass even voices support for embryonic stem cell research that does not destroy the embryo. Like I said, the media have done a VERY bad job explaining things.

  • http://www.exceptionalmarriages.com Dr. Greg Popcak

    Mollie’s correct. Kass does not oppose stem cell research. In fact, I believe one of the proposals he did approve of was one in which the stem cell could be tampered with so that it did not develop into an embryo. Others have actually denounced this proposal as “creepy” although most Christian bioethicists agree that this option is actually more morally licit than allowing the embryo to develop.

    Furthermore, most people are not aware, but there has been no proof the embryonic stem cells are beneficial. None. By contrast, there are dozens of studies which show that stem cells (taken from baby teeth, the umbilical cord, etc) are beneficial in a multiplicity of ways.

    Greg

  • Brad

    Did anyone else find the phrasing in that article – “The three main religions that oppose Hwang’s research define stem cells as living creatures” to be strange? I’m referring to the “living creatures” part, of course.

    It’s like they think people are protesting research on dogs (which also happens but usually they’re different groups).

    Brad

  • http://www.MaryMeetsDOlly.com Rebecca Taylor

    From above:
    “For the religious groups, the key question seems to be whether or not to consider embryonic stem cells, upon which Hwang’s cloning experiments are based, as a living entities. The three main religions that oppose Hwang’s research define stem cells as living creatures and therefore the destruction of stem cells for scientific purposes could be equivalent to murder.”

    I don’t know ANY religious group that thinks “stem cells” are living entities. They think the EMBRYOS that are destroyed for the stem cells are. This is just another way the media tries to confuse the issue. They either aren’t smart enough to get the science right or they are purposefully obfuscating the issue.

  • Dan

    The larger, and obvious, point is that only the most clueless think the debate is about whether embryonic research kills human life. It is cold hard scientific fact that it does. The debate is over whether that life is entitled to protection.

  • Brad

    Here’s an article in the NYT that does quote (to a small degree) some who don’t like this whole idea to begin with. They mostly say they’ll let the controversy speak for itself:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/16/science/16research.html

    Brad

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Brad,

    Yes, they found some opponents of embryonic stem cell research. Which is good. Unfortunately the NYT still has the problem of explaining the difference between opposition to EMBRYONIC stem cell research and stem cell research in general.

  • Brad

    True. It’s apparently easier to just lop off the word “embryonic” and save the keystrokes, even if that does pretty seriously change the debate.

    Brad

  • Carl

    Rumours? Since when is G.R. British?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Carl,

    Thank you for pointing that out. I blame my Canadian first grade teacher for my tendency to use the British u. I’m fixing it now.

    Mollie

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Another note — Dr. Hwang says, essentially, that it’s all a big misunderstanding and he can prove that his research is sound within 10 days from last Thursday. I’ll be sure to check back around Christmas for the update.


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