This week (Sept. 19) it was reported that the government of South Korea will invest $89 million to recommence its pursuit of human embryonic stem cells (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-14968613). You may remember the scandal that erupted in 2006 when a South Korean scientist (Hwang Woo-suk) declared that he had generated human embryonic stem cells by means of cloning. Later it was discovered that the research had been faked. Woo-suk, who was considered a national hero before the scandal, “caused inevitable damage to the entire stem cell research community in Korea,” according to South Korea’s president, Lee Myung-bak. The money will be invested, proclaimed Lee, to “…restore our national fame as a stem cell powerhouse.” The BBC report ends with the oft-cited list of all the diseases that may be treated by stem cells including, “Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, diabetes, burns and spinal cord damage.”[i]
The announcement by President Lee troubles me on several levels:
1) there is no evidence that human embryonic stem cells (hESC) can actually treat human diseases. Yet, the technology is touted as the panacea to all the major diseases that inflict humans today.
2) thus far, the research has produced more hype than tangible hope. Indeed, the promises of hESC therapy entice those with money to burn in the search for a magic cure. For example, recently it was reported that Peyton Manning traveled to Europe to seek stem cell treatment for a neck injury. ABC News referred to Manning’s efforts as a “Stem Cell Hail Mary.” Apparently the treatment was unsuccessful. The ABC News article included the following statements by Dr. Ruth Macklin (bioethics professor, Albert Einstein College): “We live in an era where physicians are encouraged to practice ‘evidence-based’ medicine. However, a sports superstar has the money… to travel anywhere in the world to receive an experimental procedure that is not based on any evidence that works for his condition.” Another stem cell researcher, Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, noted that “he was unaware of any stem cell approach that is proven to help any sort of spinal issue.”[ii]
3) hESC research, of course, destroys human embryos. Yet we know that zygotes formed at fertilization are genetically unique with an intrinsic capacity of self-development. The zygote does not become a human being at some later stage (e.g., implantation); it is a human being!
4) other types of stem cell research, such as somatic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells, show far more promise for present and future therapy than hESCs. Furthermore, somatic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cell research are not ethically problematic because they do not entail the destruction of embryos.
It is unfortunate that South Korea has renewed its pursuit of the unethical practice of hESC research. It could instead follow the example of several Japanese scientists (e.g., Shinya Yamanaka and Kazutoshi Takahashi of Kyoto University) who have researched ways to reprogram skin tissue in mice to mimic embryonic stem cells. In the end, South Korea’s effort to become a “stem cell powerhouse” will be overshadowed by its moral compromise.