Marlowe's Shade

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Human Cost of Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Some how I managed to go almost a whole week without quoting a post by Wesley Smith, so let me rectify that...

He posted this commentary by Nigel Cameron and Tina Stevens on how the scandal in South Korea highlights how ignoring ethical concerns and the law of unintended consequences can quickly turn what should be principled scientific inquiry into the circus that Dr Hwang's career has become.

News that the world's leading cloning expert, Hwang Woo Suk, resigned after admitting unethical research practices stunned the science community. His World Stem Cell Hub had been touted as South Korea's attempt to corner the market in clonal embryos and their stem cells.

As legislators, courts and editorial boards grapple with the fallout from California's own cloning controversy -- the $3 billion bonanza for grant-hungry researchers and risk-averse biotech companies intent on corporate welfare to fund their research -- it's time to take stock. When the world's top cloner becomes the first international scandal of the "biotech century," we need to start asking questions.

Hwang's disgrace stems from the cover-up over the source of the eggs needed for his experiments. After denying rumors about the source of some eggs at his lab in Seoul, Hwang admitted late last month that two subordinate scientists at the lab had indeed donated their eggs for research. He also admitted that a doctor had paid some women for eggs used at the lab. These are no mere details; they go to the heart of the ethical problems with human-cloning technology and should have been front-and-center in California's debate over Proposition 71 a year ago, had the initiative's proponents not outspent its detractors by more than 50 to 1 and the media not given them uncritical support.

They go on to lay out the "supply chain" problem with embryonic stem cell research:

When apologists for "therapeutic cloning" speak airily of hopes of cures, not only are they guilty of hype, they fail to disclose that every single cloning effort requires eggs. These eggs are not laid by chickens. They must be extracted, after more than a week of powerful, daily hormone injections, by inserting a needle into a woman's ovary -- an unpleasant procedure leading sometimes to serious long-term health problems from ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. There are complaints from thousands of women who have taken these hormones. There is also no conclusive research putting to rest speculation connecting the drugs to ovarian cancer.

An although the media ignores this aspect of ESCR, this problem was not unexpected:

Some of us said all along that the only way cloning researchers would ever get anything near the number of eggs they needed would be through unethical channels. We thought they would go to poor women in poor countries, which is one reason so much of the developing world supported the U.N. global cloning ban. California should ban payments for egg donation for embryonic stem cell/embryonic cloning research. Stiff penalites for violations should be enforced. Moreover, it should proceed only after serious, independent, medical study aimed at addressing unanswered concerns over the long-term effects of hormones and egg extraction takes place. Only then can the state offer a meaningful and fully "informed consent."

And certainly this isn't the only serious ethical issue that ESCR presents. But it certainly was one that hasn't been properly addressed.
papijoe 1:06 PM