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  • Stem-cell research must keep its house in order

The downfall of South Korea's leading stem cell scientist says more about the pressures on modern researchers than it does about the ethics of the research involved. But the two remain linked.

There is a deep irony in last week's resignation of South Korea's leading stem-cell researcher, Hwang Woo Suk. The move followed controversy over his groundbreaking research on techniques for cloning human embryos to supply stem cells, which many think could lead to treatments for a range of human diseases.

For the public, the most controversial aspect of this research is that the fertilised embryos that are used become unviable. Those opposed to stem-cell research claim that destroying a human embryo, regardless of its stage of development, amounts to abortion.

But it was a very different and specific controversy surrounding Hwang's work that led to his resignation. Last week, he admitted he had been untruthful last year when he denied that human eggs used for his research had come from junior members of his own team.

Critics of stem-cell research would be wrong to see Hwang's downfall as vindication of their broader moral complaints. After all, there is no direct link between how the egg donors' informed consent was obtained, and arguments about whether a fertilised embryo — even if only a few cells — is a 'full' human being.

Nevertheless two important sets of pressures link these aspects, and need to be addressed by everyone concerned about responsible scientific conduct.

The first are the pressures on individual researchers due to the highly competitive nature of much modern science. The second are parallel pressures caused by globalisation.

Pressures of scientific competition

Scientists rarely discuss outside of the laboratory the pressure they face at work . But it is familiar to anyone involved in cutting-edge research, even as a postdoctoral student. The continuous pressure — to publish ahead of colleagues in the same field, for instance — can be relentless, resulting in long working days and heavy mental stress.

The positive side of this pressure, as many researchers will readily admit, is that it can be highly stimulating. The most scientifically productive nations tend to be those (such as the United States) where competition is most intense and pervasive, determining not only the reward structure (in terms of promotion and prizes) but also job security.

The danger is that competition can produce a single-mindedness that affects scientists' judgement about the potential benefits and costs of their research, and the balance between the two. In the worst cases, this can encourage researchers to cut corners — such as respecting the interests of human subjects.

There is no evidence that this happened in Hwang's case. Indeed the researchers involved have emphasised that they provided their own eggs voluntarily (and apparently without Hwang's knowledge). Nevertheless, as he admitted when announcing his resignation, he had been "blinded by work and a drive for achievement".

Technological ambition

If internal pressure can impinge directly on the ethical practices of scientists, so too can external pressure to generate results that can be turned into profitable technologies.

Only last month, the government of South Korea appointed Hwang to lead the new World Stem Cell Hub, showing that technology emerging from stem cell research is a key component of plans to make South Korea the home of cutting-edge bioscience industries.

Strikingly, Asia's emerging economies see science and technology as essential for long-term economic development. India and China, to give two other examples, are also boosting their research budgets.

In doing so, they risk under-investing in the regulatory structures required to ensure that the desire for quick profits does not overshadow concerns about how research is done. After all, ethical review boards do not contribute directly to economic growth.

Again, there is no evidence that, in Hwang's case, economic pressures had any significant role to play in encouraging the practices he admitted last week. 

Nor is anyone suggesting that the research would inevitably have been delayed if the established ethical procedures — such as only using human embryos donated free of either economic or personal pressure — were followed.

Nevertheless such pressures are not unknown. The importance of a strong ethical framework for any medical research, for example, was one of the main themes of India's first National Bioethics Conference held in Mumbai last week.

With no national regulatory agency in place to monitor stem cell research or use, India is witnessing the growth of public funded institutes and private clinics that claim to have cured dozens, even hundreds, of patients with stem cells. Yet no claim has been peer-reviewed.

For John Le Carré, whose book The Constant Gardener is a fictionalised account of ethical norms being ignored in a drug trial in Kenya, such issues have become corporate capitalism's weak-spot.

The need for open debate

One of the biggest challenges that the international community faces is how civil society should respond when the pressures of rapid science-based globalisation conflict with conventional notions of ethical behaviour. This poses a particular dilemma for rapidly developing countries where the desires for economic growth and responsible regulation can sometimes clash.

In the case of stem-cell research, some argue that the ethical issues raised by using human embryos are enough to ban the research. This is the message of a resolution approved earlier this year by a majority vote of members of the United Nations (see UN to 'recommend' national bans on human cloning).

The danger here, to use an English expression, is of "throwing out the baby with the bathwater". If the research leads to life-saving treatments for diseases ranging from Alzheimer's to diabetes, there is a strong argument that its value far outweighs that of a small collection of human cells that would otherwise be discarded (see The UN must take a moderate stand on human cloning).

But if we should not ban stem cell research completely, tough regulation is essential to ensure that the research is socially acceptable. Furthermore, these rules will only gain public approval if they are subject to close scrutiny and open debate before being introduced.

Merely paying lip service to international codes of practice, without embedding rules in a genuinely democratic process of consultation, may meet international requirements. But it will not necessarily prevent embarrassing problems arising on the ground.

Nor will it lead to the cultural shifts that are needed within science itself if the pressures of competition — both scientific and economic — are to balance with ensuring science serves humanity.

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