Thursday, January 05, 2006

Deny

Last August a Korean scientist, Hwang Woo-suk, gained international fame and virtual hero status in his homeland when it was announced that his team had successfully cloned a dog. Unfortunately at the time the focus was on the ethics of cloning man's best friend rather than the implications for humans - people didn't seem to grasp that cloning dogs wasn't supposed to be a means to an end.

This research was part of wider research to clone embryos for the production of stem cells, tailored to an individual, to treat diseases like Parkinson's, for example. Hwang's breakthrough was to announce that his team needed only 17 donated eggs, on average, to make a batch of stem cells when nearly 250 were typically needed beforehand - a hopelessly inefficient ratio and unsustainable given that the donation of oocytes (female eggs) can be traumatic and even life-threatening for women.

But things have gone wrong for Hwang, very wrong. First it emerged that women had been paid to donate eggs, an ethical no-no, and then that some women on his research team had been pressurised into donating eggs, which had previously been denied. These women would then have potentially gone on to experiment on their own eggs (at best a very troubling thought in itself).

All of this was bad enough but could, potentially, have been forgiven - considering the importance of the breakthroughs made. However it now appears that all the other so-called breakthroughs (the tailored stem-cells and the batches from small numbers of eggs) were fabrications as well. In fact Hwang appears to have achieved nothing at all, and now his co-authors have agreed to retract their papers from the journal where their results were published.

This is a bad episode, in an era where people the world over are willing to believe the worst about science (which is essentially a discipline, not a 'belief', which the mystics, charlatans and God-botherers never seem to grasp) and yet accept new-age guff. However it should be remembered that it is the principles of science that appear to have caught Hwang out. There's some comfort in that.
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