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Possible Ethical Lapse Threatens Stem Cell Deals


A scandal is threatening to tarnish one of the most celebrated scientific achievements of the decade. Last year, Korean scientists stunned the world by announcing that they'd cloned a human embryo, a feat only the Koreans have managed. Now it appears there may have been ethical lapses in the way researchers obtained women's eggs for the experiments. NPR's Joe Palca reports that if verified, the news could derail international collaborations.

JOE PALCA reporting:

To clone a human embryo, you need a supply of human eggs. For more than a year now questions about where they got their eggs have swirled around the Korean research team. News reports allege that a junior member of the research team donated her eggs for the project. Most researchers would consider that unethical. Donors aren't supposed to be forced into anything; a junior researcher might feel she had to donate to keep her job. Team leaders denied the allegations, and the issue receded, until 10 days ago.

American cloning researcher Gerald Schatten was one of the first US scientists to embrace the Korean cloning work. He traveled to Korea frequently, and had Korean scientists working in his lab at the University of Pittsburgh. But on November 12th, Schatten announced that he was severing all collaborations with the Koreans. This was stunning news. He said he had evidence Korean scientists might have misrepresented the egg donation story. Neither Schatten nor Woo-seok Hwang, the leader of the Korean team, will speak to the media.

Schatten's charges have thrown the cloning world into turmoil. The Korean scientists have derived stem cells from their cloned embryos. Scientists around the world had been looking forward to working with the Koreans in order to get embryonic stem cells from people with a variety of diseases.

Dr. ARNOLD KRIEGSTEIN (University of California, San Francisco): I think all of us would love to have access to disease-specific human cell lines, and I think that's where most of the enthusiasm came from.

PALCA: Arnold Kriegstein is director of the stem cell institute at the University of California, San Francisco. He says scientists are convinced having these lines will provide new insights into diseases and may be useful for testing new drugs. Kriegstein says in September, Korean scientists, accompanied by Gerry Schatten, came to San Francisco. They wanted to solicit Kriegstein's participation in something they were about to launch with great fanfare: the world stem cell hub. The idea was Korean scientists would make new stem cell lines and supply them to the world. Kriegstein says he and his colleagues were intrigued, but they had reservations.

Dr. KRIEGSTEIN: We were very concerned about actually, ironically, in retrospect, the ethics of how these lines would be generated and how they'd be documented and how they'd all be distributed.

PALCA: One of the biggest concerns involved the ethics of getting eggs, and just this week the Korean cloning team is facing another egg-donor scandal. According to Korean press reports, on Monday, one of the team members confessed to paying donors about $1,500, something he says he concealed from other team members. That wasn't illegal at the time he did it, although Korean law appears to prohibit it now.

Whether or not to pay egg donors is an ethical issue that cloning researchers are continually struggling with. Critics of cloning research and even some supporters worry that poor women will become an exploited resource if they are paid for their eggs. But Ann Kiessling at Harvard University says it's common practice to pay people who volunteer for research studies, and egg donors shouldn't be an exception.

Dr. ANN KIESSLING (Harvard University): This can really be done in a very ethical way, following all the guidelines for biomedical research, and compensate donors for at least part of their time.

PALCA: Kiessling says what's really important is to make sure women are fully informed about the risks of donating and how their eggs will be used. UCSF's Arnold Kriegstein says this issue of paying women for their eggs is the kind of question that will have to be ironed out before international collaborations can really work.

Dr. KRIEGSTEIN: I think if we've learned anything from this incident as it unfolds, it's the need for global standards in this field in particular. All of us would love to have access to these disease-specific lines, and they're being generated, or planned to be generated, among many sites around the world independent of this world stem cell hub, here at UCSF and in Boston and in Cambridge and so on. And I think that really speaks to the question of a global standard of some sort for ethics.

PALCA: But reaching a global standard will not be easy. Kriegstein says any collaborations UCSF scientists are planning with the Korean team are on hold until the current ethical questions are resolved. Joe Palca, NPR News.

NORRIS: Our Web site, npr.org, offers a debate between two bioethicists over the issue: `At what point are we human?'

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.

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