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Stem cell deception

THE KOREAN stem cell scandal is more a comment on human frailty than it is about the merits of therapeutic cloning. Stem cell research has the potential to make major contributions to fighting diseases, but the breakthroughs required may be more difficult than was apparent just a month ago.

Hwang Woo Suk and his colleagues in South Korea seemed to have advanced the field significantly last year when they announced they had inserted cells from a person into a donated human egg, thus producing the world's first cloned human cell. Hwang reported another breakthrough this year: creation of 11 batches of cloned cells, each with the DNA of a specific person. The hope was that cells could be tailored to treat diseases caused by an individual's faulty genes.

Now it turns out that none of the cells in the 11 batches were produced as a result of cloning. And the Koreans are reexamining the first report to determine whether Hwang's lab at Seoul National University had done any human cloning at all.

Science magazine has come in for criticism for printing Hwang's articles without fact-checking. But as Donald Kennedy, the editor, noted, the magazine works on the assumption that the data presented are legitimate. The deception would have become apparent sooner or later as researchers worldwide tried to replicate the results.

The role of professor Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh has also been questioned. He was listed as one of 25 authors of the article about the 11 batches, even though he apparently did little or no work on it. The practice is common for researchers who are considered mentors, but scientists need to be wary of such risks to their reputations.

Finally, the South Korean government has been questioned for putting $65 million behind Hwang's work, possibly creating pressure on the scientist to show results, even if fraudulent. This is no reason, however, to oppose all government support for stem cell research. Perhaps the government was overenthusiastic in supporting Hwang, but it was other Korean researchers who were the first to question the results.

In the United States, Congress is trying to overturn a wrongheaded decision by President Bush to limit federal funding. Opponents of stem cell research contend the scandal shows that Bush is right. Hwang's failings, however, have nothing to do with opponents' arguments that cloning produces embryos that are tiny human beings.

The scandal illustrates many all-too-human traits: desire for fame, delusions of power, lying, and recrimination. The objects of Hwang's experiments -- aggregations of several hundred cells -- are far too primitive to be called human, with all the flaws and virtues that implies.

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