Sunday, July 09, 2006

Obsidianwings blasts George/Cohen on embryonic stem cell issues, but are they missing the point?

Hilzoy says of the George/Cohen piece on stem cells: There are serious debates to be had on this topic, but this column doesn't contain any of them.

Hilzoy begins: [George and Cohen] start out by describing the Korean stem cell scandal, in which Hwang Woo Suk, a Korean researcher who had claimed to clone human embryos, turned out to have faked his research. George and Cohen note that "some dismiss the South Korean fraud as the work of a few bad scientific apples". That "some" includes me. I think that the fact that one researcher seems to have engaged in egregious scientific fraud does not carry any wider implications about stem cell research, any more than the forgery of Hitler's diaries implies that the study of history is inherently corrupt.

Hilzoy seems to be working along only a morality dimension: Stem cell researchers generally do believe that what they're doing is not morally wrong, and they believe this because, according to them, there really is no problem with killing a five-day-old blastocyst.

Hilzoy does not discuss the implications that stem cell workers in the field, including BUT NOT LIMITED to the referees at Science, did not question the results of the 2005 paper of Hwang in Science. The problem is not that the other workers were engaged in fraud, but they did not recognize fraud, which failure does have "wider implications in stem cell research." In stark contrast, there were a number of physicists who did recognize problems in Jan-Hendrik Schon's work, LONG BEFORE Science and Nature got around to retracting the papers. Further, it is interesting to note that Science has yet to make public the results of the Brauman panel investigating how such a fraudulent paper got published. I had pointed out several "red flags" in the 2005 Hwang manuscript. See 88 JPTOS 239 (March 2006). "After-the-fact" some stem cell workers have pointed to problems with the Hwang paper, but nobody laid these problems out prior to the unraveling in December 2005. If persons of skill in the art can't recognize problems in real time, there is a question of who really knows what is really feasible and what is pie-in-the-sky puffery. And, then, we have the intellectual property issues, including those between Hwang and Schatten and separately between WARF and CIRM. Hilzoy didn't get around to these.

Hilzoy gets into the Bush administration policy on funding of embryonic stem cell research: The supposed relevance of the Korean scandal to these bills is as follows. Researchers have said that SCNT would be helpful to them. This is true, for reasons I explained here (scroll down to 'The Main Issue'.) George and Cohen draw this conclusion: "If cloning is really so important for research, then overturning the Bush administration policy to fund research on "spare" IVF embryos is not very useful." One notes that, with the demise of the 2005 Hwang paper in Science, there is no such thing as cell lines derived from SCNT. Apart from the ethics issues surrounding destruction of blastocysts, there is simply a more practical issue as to "where" this research is from a scientific perspective.

Hilzoy does mention work by Yamanaka.

I read the first 28 comments to the Hilzoy blog, and didn't find any of these issues addressed. One will not find too much sympathy for "blastocyst rights" among the 28.


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