The Magazine

Another Cloning "Breakthrough"

The world's first phony stem cells

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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In February 2004, Woo--Suk Hwang made world headlines when he claimed to have cloned human embryos using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, and then to have derived a line of stem cells from the embryos that could be used for medical research. Enthusiasm for this first "successful" experiment in human cloning, published in the prestigious peer--reviewed journal Science, was tempered by the inefficiency of the process: It took 242 human eggs to get just one embryonic stem cell line.

That problem seemed solved when, last May, Hwang published another article in Science asserting that he had again successfully cloned human embryos, this time deriving 11 stem cell lines and, moreover, reporting an astounding 10--fold increase in egg--use efficiency. Cloning proponents were giddy, declaring that the age of therapeutic cloning was nigh. Soon, they predicted, sick patients would be able to clone embryos made of their own tissue, from which, in turn, genetically matched stem cells could be derived for use in regenerative medical treatments.

Hwang's paper was greeted joyously by cloning advocates and their media allies in the United States for another reason: The research had been done in South Korea. Hwang's "breakthrough" therefore proved that the United States was "falling behind" in stem cell research. Hence, they argued, President Bush's policy limiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to lines created before August 9, 2001, must be overturned to permit American research to flourish.

Meanwhile, Hwang was lauded internationally as a genius and embraced by his countrymen as a national hero. The South Korean government created a postage stamp in his honor, depicting a figure leaping out of a wheelchair. (Never mind that such therapeutic benefits remained hypothetical; never mind that an unjustly neglected South Korean colleague had already restored partial mobility and feeling to a paralyzed woman using umbilical cord blood stem cells that require no cloning and no sacrificed embryos.) Hwang looked like a Nobel laureate in waiting.

Then the roof caved in. In mid--November, Hwang's American research partner, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, severed ties with him, complaining that the South Korean had purchased the human eggs used in his experiments-in violation of ethical canons requiring that they be donated-and lied about it. Then came word that some of the photographs depicting the stem cell lines that had accompanied Hwang's 2005 paper were duplicates, not originals. But this didn't seem too serious. Science claimed it was a production error.

Shortly after that, however, came rumors, followed by open accusations, that Hwang had committed research fraud. A junior researcher said that rather than Science being to blame for publishing the wrong photos, Hwang had actually forced him to submit duplicates to make it appear that his experiments had succeeded beyond their actual merit. Another of Hwang's colleagues claimed that the second experiment had required hundreds more eggs than reported. If true, it would mean that the egg efficiency problem with human therapeutic cloning remains unsolved.

But this was all a prelude to the real drama: On December 15, Roh Sung Il, one of Hwang's 2005 Science coauthors, charged that 9 of their 11 stem cell lines were faked, and that the remaining two lines might not exist at all. South Korean scientists, academics, and media clamored for independent verification of all of Hwang's work. At first, Hwang's lab stonewalled. Then Hwang held a press conference, and matters became even more confused.

His responses were chaotic, his story continually evolving. He denied faking the research. But he also acknowledged that only three of the embryonic stem cell lines had passed a necessary test to prove their viability. Then, sounding like Captain Queeg, he claimed that he was the victim of a nefarious plot in which someone, somehow, had switched his cloned stem cell lines with embryonic stem cells derived from in vitro fertilization embryos. Finally, he asserted some of the stem cell lines had been destroyed by fungi, but that he was thawing five frozen samples to prove he had actually created cloned embryos and derived stem cells from them.

Last Friday, however, all pretense of innocence was dropped, when an investigatory panel from Hwang's university declared that at least 9 of the 11 stem cell lines were faked. (The other two are still under investigation.) The ruse apparently involved splitting an original cell sample into different test tubes and then claiming one cell line was from the patient and one from a clone. In this way, Hwang somehow convinced one of the world's most prestigious journals-and through it, the world-that he was a historic figure in science. Hwang resigned his university post in disgrace.

Hwang's implosion leaves the field of human cloning research in a state of meltdown. Their poster boy is at best a liar, at worst a fraud and a charlatan who never created human clones at all.

This debacle raises several interesting questions: What does it tell us about the thoroughness of the peer review process? Why were younger South Korean scientists able to discover Hwang's missteps when the presumably more seasoned peer reviewers for Science failed? Will the American media take a cue from their courageous counterparts in South Korea, who pursued this story until it cracked, and finally bring skepticism to their coverage of biotechnology? More to the point, will the adult/umbilical cord blood stem cell successes that have emerged one after the other in recent years finally receive the attention they deserve in the mainstream press, which has been so intoxicated with embryonic research as virtually to ignore nonembryonic breakthroughs?

Don't count on it. The pro--cloning political forces, and their media allies, recognize the potential of the Hwang fiasco to damage their cause, so they have quickly regrouped and begun to furiously spin the story. The same voices that not long ago railed against President Bush's stem cell funding policies for supposedly allowing America to fall behind the cutting--edge research in South Korea, now indignantly blame Bush for creating a hyper--competitive atmosphere that led to Hwang's failures. "Ethics can get forgotten as other nations and private companies race to fill the void left by the president's reluctance to fund stem cell research," wrote bioethicists Arthur Caplan and Glenn McGee in the Albany Times Union. "Only a properly funded U.S. stem cell research program will guarantee oversight and the protection of all involved."

That might possibly be true if scientific fraud were the only ethical problem associated with the human cloning agenda. But it isn't. Indeed, the bioethicists should ponder how science's core values of integrity and objectivity are being corroded by the passionate political pursuit of a legal license to clone.

For years, human cloning has been promoted through propaganda techniques of misrepresentation, exaggeration, and false hope for the suffering. Take the profoundly deceptive $35 million political campaign that last year convinced California voters to pass Proposition 71, authorizing the state to borrow $3 billion to subsidize research into somatic cell nuclear transfer cloning and embryonic stem cells. In order to induce wary voters to endorse billions more in debt despite the red ink flowing catastrophically out of California's coffers, proponents promised that the state would one day garner a bounteous return from royalty and tax payments, perhaps eventually recouping all the money borrowed to fund the initial research. (Voters should have asked themselves why, if this were true, the state's numerous venture capitalists hadn't been clever enough to fork over the $3 billion.)

Thus Robert Klein, the driving force behind the initiative and now head of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, assured voters that universities and private firms receiving grants would share $1 billion or more in royalties with the state. But, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere after the election, it now appears that little, if any, royalty money will ever be returned to the state. "What Klein knew before the election was that such royalty--sharing by the state might be hampered by federal regulations, according to an attorney who helped Klein draft the initiative," the Chronicle reported. "Yet he didn't tell voters."

That wasn't all. When opponents of Proposition 71 asserted in the official ballot arguments that the initiative would subsidize human cloning, the pro--71 campaign sued to prevent the argument from being mentioned in the state's voter election guide-even though the initiative explicitly created a state constitutional right to conduct human somatic cell nuclear transfer, the scientific name for a human cloning technique. (The judge saw right through the ruse, and ruled that human cloning was at the heart of the initiative.)

Then there is the ongoing hype about the medical potential of cloning, which reached cruel heights in the wake of President Reagan's death from Alzheimer's disease. Using the widespread public mourning for Reagan as a backdrop, human cloning advocates argued that Alzheimer's could be cured if only the impediments to federally funded embryonic stem cell research were pushed out of the way.

In fact, though, Alzheimer's disease is extremely unlikely to be effectively treated with stem cells, whether cloned or natural. As Washington Post science reporter Rick Weiss allowed in a June 10, 2004, article, "the infrequently voiced reality, stem cell experts confess, is that, of all the diseases that may someday be cured by embryonic stem cell treatments, Alzheimer's is among the least likely to benefit." This is because Alzheimer's is a whole brain disease that "involves the loss of huge numbers and varieties of the brain's 100 billion nerve cells-and countless connections, or synapses, among them."

If stem cells have little "practical potential to treat Alzheimer's," why do proponents of cloned--embryo research continue to invoke a cure for Alzheimer's in their sales pitches? Weiss quoted Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: "To start with, people need a fairy tale. Maybe that's unfair, but they need a story line that's relatively simple to understand."

So where are we in the cloning debate? At this point, we don't know whether human cloning has been successfully accomplished or not. We don't know whether embryonic stem cells have been derived from cloned embryos. We don't know to what depths the dishonesty of the seemingly most successful researcher in the field actually descended.

We do know that cloning proponents in this country are avid in their desire for billions in federal and state money to pay for morally problematic and highly speculative research that the private sector generally shuns. And we do know that some advocates of this public policy agenda are more than willing to play fast and loose with the facts in order to get their way. In short, the human cloning agenda is falling into public disrepute-and for that, proponents of the agenda have no one to blame but themselves.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and a special consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture. His most recent book is the Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World.