The Revolutionary Ethics of Embryo Research

What appeared to be the most momentous scientific advance of 2005 is currently under siege. In June, the prestigious journal Science published an article by the South Korean scientist Woo-Suk Hwang and an international team of co-authors describing how they had developed what were, in effect, “made to order” lines of human stem cells cloned from an adult. Although the scientific validity of their research is now the subject of several separate investigations, it is no less important to examine its ethical implications.

Hwang and his colleagues claimed to have replaced the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg with the nucleus of an ordinary cell taken from another person, developing stem-cell lines from the resulting embryo that matched the DNA of the person who supplied the ordinary cell. That achievement appeared to take us significantly closer to a world in which patients could be given cell or tissue transplants that their bodies would not reject, because the biological materials, cloned from the patients themselves, would be a perfect match.

At the beginning of December, Hwang disclosed that some of the eggs came from two women working in his lab, and that other “donors” had been paid for their eggs – a breach of ethical guidelines that had nothing to do with the accuracy of the science. But then Hwang’s collaborators began questioning the validity of the experiment itself, and Hwang notified Science that he wished to withdraw the paper. At the time of this writing, he still defends the validity of his work, while admitting “human errors” in the preservation of the stem-cell lines, including contamination by a fungus. He has reportedly even suggested that some cells may have been tampered with.

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