For those aiming to develop new, stem cell based therapies for conditions such as spinal cord injury and diabetes, 2005 will be remembered as the year in which hopes were first raised beyond everyone's expectations - only to be dashed, when apparently groundbreaking research was revealed to be an audacious hoax. The astounding news that South Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang and his colleagues fabricated the existence of embryo stem cell (ES cell) lines genetically-matched to patients has shocked the scientific community. The Science paper describing the advance has now been fully retracted, and an investigation into other work carried out by Hwang's team at Seoul National University is due to report its findings tomorrow. But what effect will the revelations have on the stem cell field, and indeed, the public image of science as a whole?
The Korean team seemed way ahead of everyone else when it reported making 11 cell-lines from 31 cloned embryos, using just 185 eggs. Scientists in the US and UK have managed to clone human embryos, but haven't yet managed to get them to survive long enough to derive stem cells. Hwang put his success down to the skill of his research team, and the use of fresh eggs, provided by fertile young donors. But it was questions over the ethically-dubious sourcing of these eggs and suspicions over the actual numbers used, that first lead to Hwang's achievements being scrutinised further. Allegations of 'untrustworthy' data soon followed. By the end of the year, the Korean cell-lines were exposed as fakes, and Hwang had fallen spectacularly from grace.
Groups opposed to all ES cell research have been quick to point to the Korean fraud as evidence that such work should be stopped, even before it has really started. But this view discounts the genuine, vital work being carried out by every other stem cell scientist around the world. The promise of new therapies for a host of different diseases remains - although whether they will come from ES or other types of stem cell is still unknown. It may be that public banks of ES cell lines - similar to blood banks - offer a more realistic hope for clinical applications than individual, genetically-matched cells. Or, it could be that ES cells will never be used therapeutically, but instead will be mined for rich seams of information on poorly-understood conditions such as motor neurone disease. Who knows? But one thing is certain: the only way to find out is to allow scientists to keep doing the research, by providing adequate funds and a supportive regulatory framework.
Of course, the other factor vital for the successful application of new scientific research is public support. In the wake of the stem cell scandal, some researchers have expressed fears that the public image of science as a whole has been irreparably damaged. But perhaps it is more likely that most people recognise that scientific fraud is big news precisely because it is so unusual. However, it remains crucial that the potential of human ES cell research is conveyed accurately - without raising false hopes, and by putting advances into context. The same is true of many other areas of human reproductive, genetic and embryo science - which, touching as they do on the beginnings of life, raise unique ethical, social and legal issues.
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