The South Korean cloning scandal is a setback for other scientists working on embryonic stem cells and will increase scrutiny of their achievements, researchers said on Thursday.
News that scientist Hwang Woo-suk had fabricated two studies claiming he had cloned human embryos to provide stem cells is also a huge disappointment for patients who believed his work could lead to new therapies for debilitating diseases.
“It sets us back a bit,” said Professor Alison Murdoch, of Newcastle University in northern England who was granted the first license in Britain to do cloning research.
“When we come to publish anything, the validation will have to be more than 100 percent tight,” she told a news conference.
Stem cells are master cells that have the potential to develop into any cell type in the body. Scientists believe they could act as type of repair system to provide new therapies for illnesses ranging from diabetes to Parkinson’s.
Their use is controversial because the most promising stem cells for treating human disease are derived from very early human embryos left over from fertility treatments.
Murdoch said stem cell scientists will now feel they are working in a fish bowl because of the heightened awareness of their research in the wake of the South Korean revelations.
But she added that the situation in Britain is entirely different from South Korea because cloning and stem cell research is licensed and audited by the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA).
Hwang apologized earlier on Thursday and took full responsibility for the forged reports after an investigation by Seoul National University revealed the fraud.
Dr Stephen Minger, director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory at King’s College London, said the fall of Hwang, who had been feted as a hero in South Korea and regarded as a leader in his field, was deeply distressing.
“It is like a really badly written Greek tragedy,” he said.
“It makes us (scientists) question peer-review, motivation, hype and the media.”
Competition for recognition, funding and publication in prestigious peer-review journals can be intense for scientists. Hwang admitted to being blinded by zeal and hinted that there could be a conspiracy to discredit him.
“This is a big distraction for the majority of the work that is being done,” said Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, head of genetics at the National Institute for Medical Research in Britain.
Professor Anne McLaren, of the University of Cambridge, believes the impact of the fraud will be much greater on South Korean science than on stem cell research worldwide or future therapies.
“Many scientists were doubtful stem cell lines made from cloned embryos would ever be a realistic option for therapy --though eventually they may prove valuable for research on serious conditions such as diabetes and motor neuron disease,” she said.
Professor Chris Shaw, of King’s College London who has a license to create specific motor neuron stem cell lines to study the disease and develop new treatments, agreed the scientific fraud was a tragedy and a setback.
But he added: “We have a very important challenge ahead of us and we intend to press on with our research.”