An ethics crisis at one of the world's most successful human embryonic-stem-cell laboratories has plunged the controversial field into a...
WASHINGTON — An ethics crisis at one of the world’s most successful human embryonic-stem-cell laboratories has plunged the controversial field into a new swirl of uncertainty, with U.S. scientists wondering if a political backlash will develop.
The accusations surrounding Korean cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University — the first scientist to grow stem cells inside cloned human embryos — has killed a spate of planned studies that sought to prove the cells’ medical potential.
But the claims that Hwang may have obtained human eggs for his studies from women who felt pressured to donate are reigniting a long-smoldering debate in the United States over the ethics of paying young women for their eggs, which are difficult to obtain but essential to the production of stem cells tailored to individuals.
Egg donation, which is generally safe but occasionally leads to serious and even life-threatening complications, has been a wedge issue in the stem-cell debates, linking feminists and other liberal thinkers to conservatives who favor tighter limits on stem-cell research.
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With a range of stem-cell bills primed for congressional action as early as January, the Korean meltdown could bolster those seeking stronger limits.
“We’re in danger of making women into guinea pigs for this research even before there are any treatments to be tested,” said Marcy Darnovsky, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, Calif., a pro-choice public-policy group that favors stronger oversight of egg donation and other biomedical technologies.
The imbroglio erupted a week ago when University of Pittsburgh biologist Gerald Schatten abruptly severed ties with Hwang, his collaborator of nearly two years, saying he had evidence that Hwang had obtained human eggs unethically.
Schatten’s charges resurrected dormant claims of two years ago, when a doctoral student in Hwang’s lab told an interviewer from the journal Nature that she and another co-worker were among several women who had donated eggs.
At the time, the student’s statement alarmed bioethicists in Korea and abroad. It is a widely accepted principle in medical research that junior members of a research team should not be allowed to be volunteers in studies because such arrangements cannot be truly voluntary.
Concerns about Hwang’s experiments were amplified by rumors that the woman had been paid for her eggs.
Hwang quickly denied the story. And before long the student did, too, blaming her poor English for what she said was a misunderstanding. Schatten accepted those denials until Nov. 11, when he said he had evidence that Hwang had been dishonest with him.
Hwang, who has been showered with millions of dollars in government grants, again denied wrongdoing last Monday. But the full explanation he promised has yet to be released.
This is not Schatten’s first brush with scandal. Ten years ago, revelations about criminal practices at a University of California fertility program led investigators to Schatten, then at the University of Wisconsin. He had an arrangement to obtain eggs from the clinic in Irvine, Calif., where, it turned out, doctors were impregnating women with embryos made from other women’s eggs and distributing excess eggs to researchers without institutional approval.
One Irvine doctor was convicted on federal charges, and two others fled the country to avoid prosecution. Schatten was cleared of wrongdoing.
Schatten’s latest close call arose from his 2004 decision to collaborate with Hwang, who had just succeeded in growing stem cells from cloned human embryos, a “holy grail” accomplishment that for the first time proved the possibility of growing stem cells genetically matched to any patient.
For Hwang, whose English is marginal, Schatten served as an eloquent translator and link to the centers of scientific power in the Western world. For Schatten, whose stem-cell research had foundered, the deal offered a shortcut to the forefront of one of the hottest fields in biology and into the international media spotlight.
With great fanfare, Hwang and Schatten last month launched an effort to distribute hundreds of customized stem-cell colonies to researchers around the world, including U.S. researchers who have been unable to gain access to such cells under restrictions imposed by President Bush in 2001.
The sudden collapse of that endeavor has stunned resource-hungry U.S. researchers, many of whom had been lining up to take advantage of the Korean’s techniques and enviable funding.
The evolving situation in Korea has renewed an unresolved debate in this country over the ethics of egg donation for cloning and stem-cell research.
With current techniques, it takes dozens of eggs to make a single cloned human embryo, which is destroyed in the process of extracting the stem cells. That means that if the field of therapeutic cloning is to advance, a significant number of eggs will be needed to fuel the initial research and to satisfy the demands of patients.
It is legal in the United States to pay women for their eggs, and in recent years at least two teams of stem-cell researchers in Massachusetts have done so.
Scientists at Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., made the decision to pay women after an analysis by an ethics board created by the company, said scientific director Robert Lanza. He still thinks it is the right way to go, given the painful injections involved, the uncomfortable egg-suction procedure, and the approximately 5 percent chance of a serious case of hormonal overstimulation, which can require hospitalization.
Others, however, say such payments cannot help but be coercive, especially for poor women who might feel compelled to take on those risks to make ends meet.
In April, the National Academies, which advises the nation on science, recommended against payments for human eggs beyond expenses incurred by the donors, in part because of the “sensitivities” inherent in the creation of embryos destined for destruction.
But the report’s impact remains uncertain as research institutions, fertility clinics and the biggest wild card of them all — Congress — mull the findings and the larger issues at hand.
At least six stem-cell bills — including one that would allow broader use of federal funds for the research and another that would allow the creation of cloned human embryos but would ban payment for eggs — are awaiting action.