Donor Issue Slows Stem Cell Progress

South Korean stem cell pioneer Woo Suk Hwang, center, faces questions about allegations that he pressured women to donate eggs.
South Korean stem cell pioneer Woo Suk Hwang, center, faces questions about allegations that he pressured women to donate eggs. (By Bae Jae-man -- Associated Press)
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 20, 2005

An ethics crisis at one of the world's most successful human embryonic stem cell laboratories has plunged the controversial field of research into a new swirl of uncertainty, with U.S. scientists nervously wondering if the scandal will grow into a new wave of political backlash.

The accusations surrounding Korean cloning expert Woo Suk Hwang of Seoul National University -- the first scientist to grow stem cells inside cloned human embryos -- has already killed a spate of planned studies that sought to prove the cells' medical potential.

But the claims that Hwang may have obtained human eggs for his studies from women who felt pressured to donate are also reigniting a long-smoldering debate in the United States over the ethics of paying young women for their eggs, which are difficult to obtain but essential to the production of stem cells tailored to individuals.

Egg donation, which is generally safe but occasionally leads to serious and even life-threatening complications, has been a wedge issue in the stem cell debates, linking feminists and other liberal thinkers to conservatives who favor tighter limits on stem cell research.

With a wide range of stem cell bills primed for congressional action as early as January, the South Korean meltdown could bolster those seeking stronger limits.

"We're in danger of making women into guinea pigs for this research even before there are any treatments to be tested," said Marcy Darnovsky, associate director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Oakland, Calif., a pro-choice public policy group that favors stronger oversight of egg donation and other biomedical technologies. "We really need clear rules that someone is enforcing."

The imbroglio erupted a week ago when University of Pittsburgh biologist Gerald Schatten abruptly severed ties with Hwang, his collaborator of nearly two years, saying he had evidence that Hwang had obtained human eggs unethically.

Schatten's charges resurrected dormant claims of two years ago, when a young PhD student in Hwang's lab told an interviewer from the scientific journal Nature that she and another young co-worker were among several women who had donated eggs.

At the time, the student's statement alarmed bioethicists in South Korea and abroad. It is a widely accepted principle in medical research that junior members of a research team should not be allowed to be volunteers in studies because such arrangements cannot be truly voluntary.

Concerns about Hwang's experiments were amplified by rumors that the woman had been paid for her eggs, which could have made it even more difficult for a struggling student to say "no."

Hwang quickly denied the story. And before long the student did, too, blaming her poor English for what she said was a misunderstanding. Schatten accepted those denials until Nov. 11, when he said he had evidence that Hwang had been dishonest with him.

Hwang, who in the past two years has become a major celebrity in South Korea and been showered with millions of dollars in government grants, again denied wrongdoing last Monday. But the full explanation that he promised within three days has yet to be released.

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