Viewpoint: Cloning Research in Critical Condition

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South Korean stem cell pioneer Hwang Woo-Suk is escorted by his bodyguards to enter his office at the Seoul National University earlier this month

First it was the charge that women in Woo Suk Hwang’s lab had donated their eggs for research, a clear violation of ethical standards. Then came his admission that photographs in a Science paper he published last year on stem cells cloned from human volunteers were phony, which led to a retraction. But when a panel at Seoul National University ruled last week that not just the pictures but much of the data in the Science paper had been faked as well, Woo Suk Hwang, South Korea’s cloning superstar, had to resign.

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 technology—that 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 well—and 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 and—most important—rejection-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.