Since the birth of “Dolly”, the sheep, a surge of interest was generated amongst scientists and common people as to: What are “stem cells” after all? How do they work? What if we could just replace a body’s worn out cells with new ones? Or, what if we could really repair our defective pancreatic cells to find a permanent cure for diabetes one day? Or, if the paralyzed might be able to walk again some day?
All of this seemed like science fiction, a few years back but the great strides in stem cell research had at least ignited the hope that all of this could be achieved pretty soon. Researchers at Seoul National University, South Korea, seemed to make history in this direction when they claimed the first successful cloning of a human embryonic stem cell line in early 2004. In merely a year’s time, they reported the creation of “tailor-made or customized” stem cells, matching to patient’s genetic identity, for treating a wide variety of human disorders; especially the ones that require repair or regeneration of extensively damaged tissues viz., Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, diabetes, infertility etc. This landmark study published jointly by Korean and American Scientists in Science (May’05), which apparently had a profound impact on the entire scientific community and showed that patient-specific cellular models of human disease could be developed with great precision, has been under fire for now. Amidst the accusations of scientific misconduct, ethical breaches and fraudulent research, these landmark papers were withdrawn from Science resulting in great disappointment and shattering of hopes of countless patients who could have been benefited from these innovative treatments. The scientific world, which had been waiting with great excitement, the application of such a therapeutic cloning effort mainly directed towards curing of debilitating diseases, is staggered over this revelation. The year 2005, for Dr.Woo-Suk Hwang, who was celebrated as the “stem cell pioneer” and ”king of cloning”, started with a bang but ended in disgrace. Despite this scandal, it remains one of the highlights in science for the last year and years to come.
It all seemed undoubtedly remarkable that within just a year after these investigators managed to clone the human embryo, they further claimed to create the first batch of embryonic stem cell lines that genetically matched patient’s immune system. Unfortunately though, in an announcement that was much feared by the stem cell biologists all over the world, both of these reports were fully discredited and declared to be fraudulent on 10th January, 2006, by an investigative panel at SNU and the reports were retracted (for reference see, the statements released by Science):
A dramatic claim that Dr. Hwang’s team had cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells from it (2), heralding a stunning prospect of human cloning and the promise of using the stem cell therapy to treat incurable diseases (3), came crashing down when Dr.
Hwang publicly took responsibility of the major loopholes and ethical misdoings related to this work in Dec.’05 http://www.nature.com/news/2005/051219/pf/051219-3_pf.html. Besides ethical mishaps like procurement of extraordinarily large number of eggs from paid donors, Hwang was also accused of outright fabrication of the results reported in his papers.
It was also found that the “patient-specific stem cells” created by his team turned out to be fakes. What was worse was, that the images of different 11 stem cell lines that accompanied the original Science article (2005), describing a genuine creation of stem cell lines, were in fact duplicates (http://www.climateaudit.org/?p=476 ) and were also fabricated. Further, the DNA samples from acclaimed stem cell lines, tested by the panel, also did not match that of the donors, casting a serious doubt over the validity of created stem cell lines in the 2005 report. Had these stem cell lines been real, they would have been “a proof of principle” that the therapies specifically tailored to individual patients avoiding “immune rejection” could one day be created !
While the scientific community continues to suffer a tremendous setback from all this, most of the stem cell biologists also feel that, we are back to where we were several years ago when the first cloning experiment was initiated. Since 1998, when human embryonic cells were first isolated, researchers had hoped to clone and grow these cells into rejection-free transplant tissues for patients suffering of extensive tissue damage and diseases like Parkinson’s, diabetes, or even leukemia.
Not only has this episode brought about the fall of the “rockstar” scientist, but it has also seriously questioned the credibility of scientific ethics in general. Although it is described to be the biggest fraud in scientific history in years to remember, independent attempts in this direction should be certainly triggered, as this is the key step for making stem cell medically useful. The scopes are enormous; adult stem cells could also provide a less controversial alternative to embryonic stem cells to allow “reconstruction without deconstruction” in our bodies.
Finally, our sharp mindfulness and caution over analyzing scientific findings which appear “too good to be true”, will certainly take us far, because even though we are standing on the shoulders of giants, they may well be on a shaky ground themselves.