Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Magic Eggs and the Frontier of Stem Cell Science

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Magic Eggs and the Frontier of Stem Cell Science

Article excerpt

Two myths about eggs figure prominently in the story of Korea's national origin. First there is the tale of Pak Hyeokkeose, the first ruler of Shilla, the ancient Buddhist state that evolved into what is now North and South Korea. According to legend, the six leaders of the city-states that would eventually become Shilla decided that they needed a king to rule over them. They gathered in the wilderness and prayed for guidance. Suddenly there was a flash of lightning, and on the ground appeared an enormous egg. Out of this egg emerged a young boy. The leaders quickly took the child and led him to a secluded temple in the south where he was raised to be king.

Then there is the story of Seok T'alhae, the son of the king and queen of the Wanha region. He, too, emerged from a giant egg. But the king's advisors warned that this supernatural event was a bad omen. So the king put his son on a boat and sent him away. The boat eventually reached Shilla. There the boy grew up and became Shilla's fourth ruler.

These myths provide a fitting metaphor for the recent stem cell scandal involving Dr. Woo Suk Hwang and colleagues at Seoul National University. Like the story of Korea's national origin, this modern tale began with the purported emergence of another kind of magical Korean egg--this time human eggs transformed through the wonder of somatic cell nuclear transfer. It was declared that from these special eggs sprang forth entities with enormous potential power--patient-specific pluripotent human stem cells that could teach scientists how to treat uncured diseases and injuries. South Korean leaders eagerly embraced these magic eggs and their precious contents. They created a safe haven to foster this research by building and financing the World Stem Cell Hub in Seoul. Many other world leaders determined that these magic eggs were a bad omen and refused to have anything to do with them. Korean scientists were left with the task of developing these unique eggs and nurturing their contents alone.

Like the ancient narrative, this modern stem cell story was supposed to mark the naissance of South Korea, this time as a world leader in biotechnology and stem cell science. Scientists with research ambitions shunned by their own political leaders were to find a refuge for their controversial work in Seoul and thus help seal South Korea's new national identity.

Unfortunately, the parallels do not end there. Like the story of the country's origin, the modern stem cell story also seems to have been built on an elaborate fiction. At the time of this writing, Korean investigators have found no evidence that Hwang and colleagues ever derived pluripotent stem cell lines from cloned human blastocysts, and the journal Science has editorially retracted Hwang's two landmark papers. (1)

The Race Ahead

As could have been predicted, the Korean stem cell candal has provided commentators around the world ample opportunity to remark on the various lessons to be drawn from this case. Among researchers, however, the scandal has produced a more surprising response. After the initial shock of this shameful news had passed, scientists began to realize that the playing field for embryonic stem cell research was far more level than they had believed. Emboldened by this realization, and perhaps encouraged by the Korean investigators' report that the Hwang team had successfully created cloned human blastocysts, many scientists are now reentering the global race to forge ahead in NT-hESC research--that is, to derive human pluripotent stem cells (hESCs) from embryos created via somatic cell nuclear transfer (NT). (2) Among the illustrious teams planning to pursue NT-hESC research this spring are researchers from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute; Advanced Cell Technology; the University of California, San Francisco; the University of California, Los Angeles; the Karolinska Institute in Sweden; Newcastle University; the Queen's Medical Research Institute at the University of Edinburgh; and the Institute of Psychiatry, London. …

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