The unmasking of Korea's cloning fraud Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk has drawn the world's attention to one of the biggest problems faced by would-be embryo researchers: the need for human eggs. Since eggs are hard to get, the idea that cloning would provide one-on-one medications for millions of people has never seemed plausible, even if it were ethical. So scientists are looking for ways around the need for human eggs, at least for their basic research.

It's therefore no great surprise to read the latest news from the United Kingdom, which has taken the lead in the race to the Brave New World. But it is chilling news. According to The Guardian newspaper,

Scientists, including Professor Ian Wilmut who cloned Dolly the sheep, are planning to use rabbit eggs instead. It gives new meaning to that old phrase "breeding like rabbits." They want to clone human embryos in rabbit eggs, and then destroy the embryos to get their stem cells.

The problem is, while this solves one ethical problem (getting eggs from women), it raises a worse one—out of the frying-pan, into the fire. The embryos that result from this process will not be entirely human. They will be what are called "chimeras"—part human, part rabbit. Mostly human, of course, but not all.

The Latest from Korea: Trafficking in Hope

The saddest story of the great debate about human cloning is its human cost. Like a biotech version of Enron, the cloning advocates have traded in worthless currency, and with it they have purchased hope. Unfortunately, it is as easy to purchase the hope of the sick, handicapped, and those who love them as it is terrible.

One of the most powerful indictments comes from a story in the Los Angeles Times about one of Dr. Hwang's victims in Korea. Just as Jack Kevorkian preyed on those who thought they were sick and offered them his homicidal services, so Woo-Suk Hwang preyed on them for an even more terrible purpose.

He told the nations that his "World Stem Cell Hub" would provide them with the personalized stem cells that have fueled the hopes of the sick and handicapped around the globe. As we know, embryonic stem cells require the destruction of a human embryo. The hope of many scientists (and, it would seem, of almost all the editorial boards) is that these stem cells, which in principle have the capacity to become any cell in the body, can be made to order. That is, if you have disease A, first we clone you, then we destroy your embryonic twin to get its stem cells, then we use those cells to create "personalized" medications for you. Dr. Hwang announced to the world that he had successfully cloned embryos and cultivated cell lines from their stem cells. We now know that this was a lie.

Read the story, as told in the Los Angeles Times on January 9:

The boy who became known as "Donor 2" was propped up in a wheelchair when a team of esteemed scientists strolled into his hospital room nearly three years ago.
The boy, 9-year-old Kim Hyeoni, had been hit by a car while crossing the street the previous year. Once a chubby-cheeked child who loved baseball and practical jokes, he now was paralyzed from the neck down.
"Sir, will I be able to stand up and walk again?" he asked the leader of the team, a South Korean veterinarian named Hwang Woo-Suk, according to an account by his father.
"I will make you walk. I promise," replied Hwang, who would soon afterward announce a breakthrough in the cloning of human stem cells.
With that meeting in April 2003, Hyeoni effectively became a poster boy in the quest to use cloned stem cells for experimental treatments of spinal-cord injuries. His father, a Methodist minister, defied the beliefs of many of his fellow church members and allowed Hwang to cut skin samples from his son's abdomen for the research. His mother, a nurse, volunteered for the invasive procedure of having her eggs extracted to donate to Hwang's laboratory.
Now the family is faced with the sinking realization that "it was all a big lie," said Kim Je Eon, the boy's 43-year-old father.
The family's saga captures at its most vivid the disappointment felt by millions around the world.

The "cures" argument in defense of stem-cell research, however flimsy its case, is hard to beat. But as high-tech snake-oil is offered in defense of ethically problematic science, we need to remember Kim Hyeoni and his parents.



Related Elsewhere:

Previous Life Matters columns include:

The Prospects for 2006 | Deeper into the (Christian?) biotech century. (Jan. 9 2006)
Peter Singer Meets Dr. Hwang | The ethics of the Brave New World. (Jan. 5, 2006)
Bethlehem's Bioethics | Christmas in the early 21st century. (Dec. 22, 2005)
A Common Cause for Our Common Humanity | Left and right come together in defense of us. (Dec. 14, 2005)
Face Off—and Back On | Face transplants raise more questions than answers. (Dec. 8, 2005)
Bioethics in Narnia? | C. S. Lewis was way ahead of the curve. (Nov. 30, 2005)
Inventing Ethics | A collaborator walks out on the South Korean cloning genius, citing ethical lapses. (Nov. 18, 2005)

More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
Previous Life Matters Columns: