Commentary: The Korean Stem Cell Fiasco

Article excerpt

The first cracks in Hwang Woo- suk's armor appeared earlier this year, when reports surfaced that women who worked in his lab may have donated eggs for his stem cell experiments. Then the South Korean scientist - who claimed a stunning series of advances in cloning and stem cell research - admitted paying donors for eggs.

Last week, the controversy surrounding Hwang exploded, as he faced mounting evidence that he had fabricated critical data.

The full story has yet to be told. Yet already there are many lessons to be learned from this episode. And perhaps the most important one is that science and politics do not mix.

When Hwang wrote a paper in Science last year claiming to be the first to clone a human cell, his work immediately became the fulcrum for the larger debate on stem cell research. Proponents of stem cell research held him up as a champion, a visionary scientist who'd built a bridge to a promising future filled with new treatments for a wide range of diseases.

Opponents of embryo cloning, on the other hand, saw Hwang's work as amoral. Many also argued that it was scientifically dubious and set out to pop what they called the hype balloon of stem cell research.

And pop it they - and others - have. Or at least that's how it seems today.

Yet we must be careful not to separate the larger political maelstrom from the science around which it swirls.

Science, whether it's the work of Hwang or an Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation scientist, must follow its own internal logic. It must not start from a foregone conclusion. Rather, it must originate in factual observations, evidence from which scientists form hypotheses and, ultimately, conclusions. …