Saturday, December 17, 2005

Scientists as Pop Stars

The big news this week in biology is the unfolding scandal in South Korea, where the team headed by Dr. Hwang Woo Suk has been accused of fabricating stem cell data that was published in a recent article in Science. The paper describes transferring DNA from adult skin cells into the embryonic cells, promising the generation of "tailor made" stem cell lines. The American Journal of Bioethics blog has excellent coverage of the story.

I was a little suprised at the extreme effect this scandal has had on the South Korean public.
"I feel like crying," said Park Mi Young, a 44-year-old office worker who was chatting with her equally glum friends at a subway entrance. "I can't bring myself to watch the television news."
A front page story in today's LA Times (free reg. required), gives more background information on Hwang's popularity in South Korea, where he is treated like a rock star, complete with a fan web site called "I love Hwang Woo Suk" (which I believe is here).
Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, worked with Hwang and his researchers in South Korea over the summer. "They're like the Beatles," he said. "If we would go to a restaurant, we'd get mobbed…. [Hwang] would joke to me, 'I'm like the Korean president or the Korean Elvis.' "
Apparently Hwang is both telegenic and gives good sound bites during interviews. His life story has the appeal of a rise to stardom from humble beginnings, having had to overcome the bias of MDs towards veterinarians along the way.
He was born Dec. 15, 1952, during the Korean War in a desolate village in South Chungcheong province.

His mother, widowed when he was 5, supported the family by raising a single cow. Hwang later attributed his decision to become a veterinarian to his childhood efforts to care for the cow. According to a biography of the researcher published this year, one of his high school teachers slapped him because he refused to go to medical school.
He has also appealed to South Korean national pride.
He regaled [reporters] with his theory that South Koreans developed their cloning prowess from the custom of using metal chopsticks, which require the kind of manual dexterity that comes in handy when manipulating genetic material.
Meanwhile, South Korea issued a stamp with an illustration suggesting that stem cells could make the wheelchair bound not only walk, but leap, which is far from the therapeutic reality.

All of this publicity (and the popular expectation that stem cells would produce near "miraculous" results) must have lead to incredible pressure to produce new results, above and beyond the normal pressures of scientific research. Hwang has boasted that he and his graduate students worked from 6 am to midnight, seven days a week, taking no holidays. It seems to me that even the most diligent researcher might crack under such strain and be tempted to cheat, just to have something to show for all of that work. Such lapses happen even here in America, where the average person would be hard pressed to name a single living scientist.

The sad part of the story is that this might have a negative impact on the entire field of human embryonic stem cell research, which does have great potential for therapeutic treatments. As the American Journal of Bioethics puts it:
The key questions in the public discussion of the Korean matter seem likely to involve a billion versions of: "Will ethical lapses in this lab damage stem cell research elsewhere?"

Answer: yup. And no amount of late-in-the-day standards creation will change that. People are going to ask whether the mechanisms whereby stem cell money is doled out have to be made much more rigorous. And yet again, the U.S. government will be zero help, since our rule for how to fund stem cell research is based on the altogether stupid idea that some tiny collection of embryonic stem cells in Wisconsin are ok in terms of ethics and money, but anything made after August 9, 2001 is evil and not to be funded.

It is a policy that makes our tax code look brilliant by comparison, and it illustrates just how dangerous the present regulatory environment really is.
As recent problems setting up a state funded stem cell research program California illustrate, this is research that would ideally be managed at the national level. Will Congress step up to the plate and help give America a leadership role in this important field?

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