Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Stanford Daily on Hwang: seeking truth or cure?

Two of the arguments for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research are based on differing ideas regarding the objective of scientific research.

The first argument is that scientific research aims to discover truth in the world, and this process of so-called progress should not be hindered by ideological opposition. For example, Nobel Laureate, professor emeritus of biochemistry and prominent supporter of stem cell research Paul Berg was quoted previously in The Daily as saying, “The search for new knowledge must have no boundaries. It is the application of that knowledge that can be the subject for reasoned and informed debate.” (“Recent genetic innovations raise troubling ethical questions,” Feb. 9, 2004).

The second argument is that embryonic stem cell research, and scientific research more generally, will lead to therapies that will cure disease. Stanford’s Dr. Irving Weissman, director of the Institute for Cancer/Stem Cell Biology and Medicine, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 2004 that those “who participate in the banning or enforced delays of biomedical research that could lead to the saving of lives and the amelioration of suffering are directly and morally responsible for the lives made worse or lost.”

There is a conflict between these two arguments, for their objectives are fundamentally different: One is seeking truth, the other cures. It is somewhat inconsistent to support knowledge for the sake of knowledge and knowledge for the sake of eradicating disease at the same time. If the reason for the research is that it will help patients, then research that holds no promise of helping patients need not be supported. Conversely, if the basis for support is the generation of knowledge, then it hardly matters whether a patient is cured.

Different though they are, these objectives underlie many of the arguments for embryonic stem cell research seen in newspapers and research journals. Actions speaking louder than newsprint, however. One must examine the motivations behind the research as it is actually carried out. So as not to bias the analysis by considering human cloning advocates or other such rogue groups, let us go straight to the upper rung of the stem cell research world — South Korean stem cell hero Hwang Woo Suk. Named “Research Leader of the Year” by Scientific American just a few weeks ago, it would be difficult to say he is out of the fold (unless it is meant as praise).

Yet it has recently come to light that not only were eggs from junior researchers used in his research, but it also appears that the data presented in a significant paper he published with others in the nearly peerless and peer-reviewed journal Science were fabricated. The work was hailed for its potential to lead to treatments for degenerative diseases.

Yet now we are faced with the question: What motivated this research? Was it the search for truth? Was it the goal of curing disease?

The scientific community relies on sharing data in journals as a means for documenting objective facts and spurring further studies. If understanding the human body and the rest of the world is the goal of scientific research, then journals are the ongoing sacred writings that document the journey forward. If Hwang’s team’s motivation for the research was the pursuit of truth, then it certainly and absolutely would not knowingly lie about findings and desecrate the pages of a journal with falsifications.

So, was it the pursuit of new treatments for disease that drove these scientists? The findings of this study gave new reason for patients and the general public — who hear about newly published findings in the mainstream media — to hope. How would falsifying data help patients? How do we feel about the potential for this research today, after hearing about the scandal? It would now take a nuanced argument, to say the least, for me to believe that it is the benefit of patients that motivates Hwang. (Incidentally, the Scientific American revoked Hwang’s “research leader of the year” honor on Dec. 15.)

Hwang does not speak for every embryonic stem cell advocate, although he did give a talk at Stanford in August that praised the great new knowledge and treatments that embryonic stem cells can deliver. Hwang is indeed an exception — how many embryonic stem cell researchers have been called the “stem cell king” and had a postage stamp line based on their research?

On the other hand, probably an equally few number of embryonic stem cell researchers have been suspected of coercing or paying junior colleagues to donate eggs and of falsifying one of the biggest publications of the year. As a Stanford graduate, I expect and pray that such a gross display will never come from any lab at the school (embryonic stem cell or otherwise) — though, to be honest, the possibility had never crossed my mind before this scandal.

The debate over federal funding for embryonic stem cell research will continue, and I have little doubt that the same arguments will continue to be heard. Certainly, I still believe in the potential — but not the guarantee — that scientific research can benefit society. What I now have reason to consider more seriously is whether or not the research is motivated by greed and fame. There is no lack of people who are driven by money or love of the limelight. Yet when those people argue for us to support them monetarily because they are seeking “truth” or “a cure,” we would be right to be skeptical.

by Kenneth Gundle, in the Stanford Daily

**to the Stanford Daily on Jan. 15, 2006:

Of the issue of what motivated Hwang Woo-Suk in his work on stem cells, one must consider the issue of national pride. As Hwang said in his apology on January 12: "We were crazy, crazy about work. I was blinded. All I could see was whether I could make Korea stand in the center of the world through this research."

Of the perceived distinction between a search for truth and a search for cures, the funding agency involved will make the determination based on the alignment of a proposal with the agency's objectives. In the U.S. the Bayh-Dole Act, passed in 1980, was designed to facilitate the jump from more basic research ("search for truth") to tangible benefits (for example, "search for cures"). Given the amount of experimentation needed to meet FDA requirements, the real search for cures typically requires the backing of someone with deep pockets, who in turn is typically motivated by the presence of intellectual property rights, to avoid the presence of free riders after the costly testing is done.
[That universities perceived possible benefits from patents prior to the Bayh-Dole Act is seen from the Cohen/Boyer patents, the applications for which were made in 1974.]

A currently unresolved issue in the Hwang matter is the presence of patent applications both by the Hwang group in Korea and by co-author Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh. Of the possible motivation of fame and fortune, one notes that the conflict of interest issue in publicizing work in the widely read Science and Nature without disclosing that the authors and institutions might benefit financially from such publicity. This becomes a possible issue of science journals as infomercials.

Additionally, ownership of patents by universities has created unusual litigations, both by universities against companies (for example, the University of Rochester against Searle over COX-2 inhibitors) and by one university against another academic body (for example, the patent interference over the rights to cloning technology used to make Dolly).

[IPBiz post 1143]


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