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The Stem-Cell Race Continues

Scientific research is usually conducted to improve our lives, but it is also an industry, one that represents a massive investment by governments and corporations alike. The stakes and potential rewards for a few research topics are exceptionally high, which is why the recent finding that the Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk fabricated the results of his work on stem cells has reverberated so widely.

The episode highlights the ongoing race in global health research that is playing out in the field of stem cells. Possibly one of the biggest prizes in medical history is up for grabs, and anyone – truly anyone – could seize it.

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The last big scientific race of this type was the effort to map the human genome, which promises to alter future lives radically. That study was initiated by the United States, which used insights developed in the wake of the atomic bombing of Japan to understand the extent of long-term genetic damage. The current research effort on stem cells and their potential is just as grand, because it will lead to an equally radical medical revolution.

A stem cell is special because it is able to reproduce a form that is different from itself. Whereas a skin cell or a liver cell, for instance, can reproduce only more skin or liver, stem cells, which are the most robust at the beginning of human development, are “master” cells. As a fertilized egg turns into an embryo, and then a fetus, those initial stem cells somehow show their daughter cells how to become skin, liver, eye, or bone. We need to know how this transformation is activated.

Such knowledge would lead to huge, patentable advances. Most attention is focused on genetic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and to muscular dystrophy. In these cases, stem cells would be encouraged to restore nerve tissue. This would also benefit patients with brain and spinal injuries, or those who have suffered strokes and paralysis.

There would be gains in parallel fields, too, such as gene therapy. A stem cell changes its identity through a process of “triggering” – a signal literally “turns on” the liver cell gene inside the stem version. When scientists figure out how to flip these switches, it might be possible to introduce stem cells into the body and activate them so that they correctly replace damaged tissue, whatever it is.

Not surprisingly, given its huge potential, teams of scientists have been mobilized almost everywhere for embryonic stem cell research. The race has become all the more dramatic since the leading researcher, the US, dropped out, owing to the influence of religion on politics (although the state of California has decided not to miss out, and recently approved a $3 billion subsidy for embryonic stem cell research).

Because the promise is so great, and the science does not require massive infrastructure, many smaller countries have rushed to take advantage of the absence of the US. Any competent medical research center can enter the race, whether in Mexico, Ethiopia, Indonesia or Yemen. Whoever wins will have added the equivalent of a Saudi oil field to their economy.

But, although anyone can win, science at this level is never a “eureka” event, with some single breakthrough suddenly ending the race. Discoveries occur incrementally, and, because it is science, each step is announced and tested. Research establishments gain momentum this way, with the leaders sweeping up talent, resources, and prestige in a rough-and-tumble intellectual ecology.

Embedded in the larger race are many smaller ones, which jostle for early, impressive results. In May 2005, Hwang’s research center in Seoul reported the first major achievement. They claimed that they had developed a technique whereby new, perfect stem cells could be cloned from ordinary ones. This was big news, for it implied that sufficient numbers of stem cells could be made without controversy, thus allowing anyone to be able to do quality research while avoiding what US President George W. Bush described as “taking a life to save a life.”

More importantly, the Koreans did a common thing these days: they claimed patent rights over the process. It almost looked for a moment as though South Korea would become a world superpower in health matters.

We now know that the Seoul researchers made up the whole thing. An investigation by a Seoul National University investigative panel has concluded that the “cloned” stem cells were really created by test-tube fertilizations.

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The fraud has bewildered the science community, particularly because the claim that the Korean researchers made was so transparently false. Why, then, did they place their reputations and careers in jeopardy?

Medical research has always faced many challenges, even when the scientific quest was simply one of discovery. Now, the challenges are complicated by politics, market forces, and national interests. With stem cell research, huge fortunes depend on which group takes the lead, wherever their laboratory is located. As the competition heats up, we should expect amazing developments – and no doubt more public relations gimmicks.