It’s a terrible setback for South Korean science and for a nation that has been hoping to become the world leader in therapeutic cloning technologythat is, the idea of using a patient’s own cells to grow replacement parts for failing tissue. And for Hwang himself, who seemed to be leaving other scientists in the dust, things have gone from bad to worse. He’s still insisting that two of the 17 human stem-cell lines he says he created through cloning are legitimate, but the university is looking into those as welland sifting through his data on Snuppy, which Hwang presented last summer as the world’s first cloned dog.
But Hwang’s disgrace shouldn’t be used as an excuse to pour scorn on the idea of therapeutic cloning itself. Ambition and pride are a danger in any high-risk, high-reward area of science, but therapeutic cloning is so promising that it needs to be pursued regardless. The potential medical advantages are enormous: by cloning a patient’s own cells to create stem cells, then coaxing those stem cells to become new pancreatic, brain, spinal cord or heart tissue, for example, it’s conceivable that a victim of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, paralysis or heart disease could shore up damaged organs with new, healthy andmost importantrejection-proof replacements. (These are embryonic stem cells, which can turn into any tissue, not the less versatile stem cells that are already being used in various procedures, including an experimental heart-strengthening surgery performed with blood stem cells on the Hawaiian singer Don Ho earlier this month).
It’s also conceivable that therapeutic cloning will turn out to be a dead end, of course; the concept is still purely theoretical, and those who tout it without caveats are being irresponsible. But abandoning the effort because one scientist overreached would be equally foolish.