‘This is like a badly written Greek tragedy’

Stephen Minger of King's Stem Cell Biology Laboratory on the fall from grace of South Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

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‘This is like a badly written Greek tragedy. It is hard to believe that anyone could shoot themselves in the foot so badly.’ Stephen Minger, director of King’s Stem Cell Biology Laboratory in London, is referring to the fall from grace of South Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang, once regarded as the world’s leading stem cell pioneer.

Hwang’s team claimed, in two papers published in the prestigious American journal Science in 2004 and 2005, to be the first in the world to clone a human embryo and harvest stem cells from it. Being able to create patient-specific stem cells from cloned human embryos was seen as a major scientific and medical breakthrough.

But a recent investigation by Seoul National University (SNU) found that Hwang’s team had faked the results. They had not successfully cloned human embryos or embryonic stem cells. Science last week retracted the two papers by Hwang’s team.

It is hard to understand why such a prestigious scientist could stoop so low. As was reported in the science journal Nature in August 2005, Hwang’s team did successfully clone Snuppy, an Afghan hound – the first cloned dog in the world. DNA evidence has shown that Snuppy is a genuine clone. Evidence also points to Hwang’s team succeeding in generating cloned human blastocysts – that is, tiny balls of cells that have the potential to grow into embryos. ‘That, and Snuppy, are at least two bits of good news’, said Miodrag Stojkovic, who cloned the first human embryo in Europe last year at Newcastle University.

So, as Stephen Minger, who has visited Hwang’s laboratories and genuinely likes the man, says to me: ‘The whole thing does not make sense. Why would someone risk so much?’ Hwang was bound to be found out at some stage. Geneticist and science writer Professor Steve Jones rightly said, ‘The odd thing is that this was such a high-profile claim that people were bound to try to repeat his work sooner or later, and would not be able to do it; so he would be found out.’

Maybe we will never get to the bottom of why Hwang’s team did what it did. But the important thing for Minger is that ‘those of us who work in the field need to get out there explaining what we are doing and why’. He told me that the whole saga ‘is a wake-up call to all those in the scientific community not to forget that science takes time. It is incremental, proceeding in small steps.’ He concedes that ‘to a limited extent we have raised expectations that cannot be met’. Now is the time to put forward more realistic expectations.

We should not be expecting instant medical miracles from stem cell research. As with all science, this research is arduous and will progress slowly. In addition, there are particular difficulties in growing human embryonic stem cells. Minger tells me, ‘now we don’t even know whether it is possible. We believe it is, but we do not know.’

Chris Shaw, a neurologist at King’s College London, who with Ian Wilmut, creator of Dolly the sheep, heads one of only two groups in the UK to hold a human cloning licence, believes research into patient-specific stem cells has been set back significantly by the Hwang controversy. He points out that this means that no stem cells have ever been extracted from cloned human embryos, and scientists are left with few clues as to how this might be accomplished.

‘The problem is that Dr Hwang had a better chance to crack this than anyone else, because of his extraordinary access to fresh human eggs in their thousands, which is going to be very difficult to reproduce anywhere else in the world’, said Professor Shaw.

Although Hwang’s fabrication may be a setback for scientists working on human cloning, Stephen Minger stresses that it is not likely to have much of an effect on stem cell research: ‘It is important to remember that cloning and stem cells are different things, and that stem cell lines continue to be made without using nuclear transfer.’

I asked Minger what the controversy may mean for the peer-review process: should the Science reviewers have spotted the fabrication prior to publication? He doesn’t believe so. ‘Peer review is designed to pick up bad science not faked science.’ He says that peer reviewers should check whether studies have appropriate controls and are reproducible and that the data adds up. ‘But we cannot ask the reviewers to go to the labs, look at the notebooks or even do some of the tests themselves’, he says. ‘Anyway, if the results cannot be replicated after publication that will get around the scientific community, and will indicate that there is something fishy going on.’

That is the ultimate death-knell for a scientist, says Minger, because scientists cannot really go on ‘without their scientific integrity’. ‘If you lose it, that is it. That is the end.’ Thankfully, there are still very few cases of scientific fabrication.

What we should take from this sad and sorry saga is that, although stem cell research may bring cures for many debilitating and, until now, incurable diseases, we need to be realistic about the pace of scientific and medical progress. One day, hopefully human stem cells – which are cells that can potentially grow into any body tissue – will be used to cure degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and to regenerate damaged spinal cord tissue. But, as Minger points out, progress in this field – as with all areas of science – will be a result of a long and hard slog.

There is a tendency today to hype both the dangers and possibilities of science. It may be tempting to respond to scaremongering stories, about scientists playing God and creating Frankenstein’s monster and so on, by hyping the possibilities of science and making promises of miracle cures. But the exaggerated scaremongering and positive hype are two sides of the same coin, and are potentially equally damaging to science. We need a sober and realistic approach to scientific research and development, which emphasises, positively, our ability to solve problems.

We should not use this setback to abandon the exciting research area of stem cells. Instead, it is an opportunity to reaffirm the possibilities which, although eminently achievable, are likely to be a lot harder than Hwang’s ‘results’ made many believe.

Read on:

Stem cells: don’t dodge the debate, by Jennie Bristow

Phoney debate about cloning, by John Gillott

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