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Beyond the Scandal: Stem Cell Research


Despite a South Korean scandal that has rocked the world of stem cell research, a number of U.S. states and scientific institutions are forging ahead with plans to expand research in this field.

Stem cells are master cells tasked with maintaining and repairing the body’s tissues and organs. Stem cells taken from days-old human embryos are thought to be capable of reproducing any type of tissue in the body.

In 2004, Seoul National University researcher Hwang Woo-Suk announced that his South Korean team had cloned human embryos--a scientific first.

Last year, Dr. Hwang, a veterinarian by training, claimed to have extracted from the clones 11 stem cell lines, or colonies, specifically tailored to treat individual patients. The news was hailed as a breakthrough in efforts to create patient-specific therapies that would not be rejected by the recipients’ immune systems.

But a Seoul University investigation into allegations of misconduct by the team found that Dr. Hwang’s findings on human embryonic cloning and person-specific stem cells were fabricated.

A Temporary Setback

Biologist Rudolph Jaenisch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says the scandal set back research on generating stem cells from cloned human embryos.

“It wasn’t clear how efficient cloning in humans would be. Some people are going to have to start again at a very careful rate. The Korean data looked very, very promising. That is not the case any more. So I think there’s a setback. Most people believed that we were farther ahead than we are.”

Some research centers lost grant money because they were not considered as advanced as the Koreans. But some analysts say the effects of the scandal were temporary.

Forging Ahead

James Greenwood, President of the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, an advocacy group for the industry, says the fabrication of the Korean data has caused a surge in stem cell research.

“The claim of success by the South Koreans tended to cause investigators to pause in their work to study the techniques that the Koreans claimed had succeeded, so they might follow in those footsteps. Now, seeing that that was a façade, a fraud, I think those investigators will go back to pursuing various previously ongoing lines of inquiry,” according to James Greenwood.

Last month, the University of California at San Francisco and Stanford University announced that they would pick up where the South Koreans left off in trying to clone human embryos.

Many laboratories in the United States have begun exploring ways to produce stem cells without resorting to cloning.

Among them is Geron, a California-based bio-pharmaceutical firm that develops embryonic stem cell therapies.

Geron President Tom Okarma says his company’s production methods do not require tailoring individual cells lines to each patient’s specific immune system. He says this is because Geron has found a way to avoid immune rejection. “We think we have a way to permanently tolerize each patient to his or her therapeutic cell type. That’s a recent discovery within our immunology work here that has identified a cell that we can make from embryonic stem cells which, when given to you or to me, will make you immunologically neutral, or tolerant, to the therapeutic cell that we make from the same stem cell line,” says Tom Okarma.

The Stem Cell Controversy

But opponents of embryonic stem cell research, who object to the destruction of human embryos for experimentation or therapy, argue that adult stem cells found in human tissues and organs are just as promising.

Adult stem cells maintain and repair the tissues or organs in which they are found. When extracted, they can be programmed to produce cells specific to that tissue or organ, although some scientists say they are not a viable substitute for embryonic stem cells.

Andrew Fergusson, President of the Illinois-based Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, says adult stem cells have been used for years to treat leukemia, lymphoma, heart disease and various blood disorders. He goes on to say, “There will not be treatments coming out of human embryonic stem cell research that will benefit any suffering patient anywhere on the planet within 20 years, in my view. But we have proven benefits for non-embryonic stem cell research, for adult stem cell research.”

Because of federal restrictions on the use of human embryos for stem cell research, scientists are now looking for less controversial alternatives. A recent breakthrough allows scientists to harvest stem cells by extracting only one cell from an embryo without destroying it. And some scientists are looking at placentas as an alternative source for stem cells.

In 2004, California voters approved a measure to spend $3 billion annually on stem cell research to allow scientists to work around federal regulations and to bolster the state’s economy. That same year, New Jersey opened the nation’s first state-supported stem cell research institute. And Maryland, Texas, Missouri and several other states are considering following California’s example. However, Delaware and Florida have defeated proposals to fund human embryonic stem cell research.

Even those opposed to the destruction of human embryos for research concede that the science will continue to advance, despite the South Korean scandal. But opponents say broader federal regulatory policies are necessary as more states, universities and private laboratories enter the field of stem cell research.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.