The first thoroughly documented cloning of human embryos shows that in the biotechnology business fortune favours the brazen – and the unscrupulous.
The shock announcement by South Korean scientists last week was carefully timed. The publication of their results in the prestigious American journal Science coincided with the annual conference of the journal’s publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This guaranteed world-wide publicity over the weekend for the journal, the AAAS, the scientists and the South Korean biotechnology industry.
At a media briefing, the editor of Science, Donald Kennedy, heaped praise on the technical expertise of the research and the diligence with which the researchers had followed ethical protocols. Celebrity veterinarian Dr Woo Suk Hwang, already famed in Korea for creating cattle which are immune to mad cow disease, was described by the press as a kind of insomniac Napoleon of science.
There was no doubt that the research was a stunning technical achievement which puts South Korea biotech on the map. Other researchers had been working for years without success towards the same goal. It took Hwang’s team only 18 months to clone human embryos and to produce a viable human embryonic stem cell line. American researchers have been left in the dust moaning about the challenge to US science.
But the real challenge will be to resist entering a limbo contest to see who can set the lowest bar for research ethics.
The very speed of Hwang’s success is due to far laxer ethical standards in Korea than in Australia, where cloning for research is not legal, or even the US or England, where it is.
In Australia, as in other Western countries, human eggs are in short supply for IVF, let alone blue sky research. But the South Koreans managed to obtain 242 eggs for free from 16 young women, despite weeks of uncomfortable and potentially risky treatment with fertility drugs.
Hwang was coy about the sources of the eggs. “Some young ladies have a lot of curiosity about reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning, and after searching the Web site they contacted us,” he told the press.
What sort of counselling did these geeky young ladies receive? Admittedly, Hwang has promised that their "sacred names will be inscribed in the monument for South Korean biotechnology". But even for hyper-patriotic South Koreans, this recompense seems more appropriate for Hwang’s cows than for his women patient.
An envious American scientist told The Washington Post that his own ethics committee would never have passed this experiment. But the lower ethical standards were crucial to the Koreans’ success. With an abundance of raw material, they were able to tinker with several different methods until they found one that worked.
Does the Korean research bring the world closer to reproductive cloning?
Hwang swears that this is not on his agenda. Nonetheless, his article is a “cookbook” for someone else to produce a cloned baby. The 242 embryos he created – and destroyed – could easily have developed into babies had they been placed in wombs.
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