By Julie Burger
Debate over embryonic stem cells heats up once again, between proponents claiming the technology will be a panacea to cure the world's ills and opponents contesting the hype and raising ethical and legal issues. One such issue hit the Korean courts on February 18—the coercion of egg donors. The saga began when Hwang Woo-Suk, a South Korean researcher, was hailed for his groundbreaking research after he reported in Science in 2004 that he had successfully cultivated human embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos. One year later, he reported the creation of patient-specific stem cells. Both articles were retracted after reports surfaced that much of Hwang's work had been fabricated. As the story unraveled, more ethical and scientific violations were revealed.
Hwang submitted duplicative photographic images of cells to Science which he falsely claimed supported his creation of different cell lines in 2005. He also manipulated the DNA testing of the cell lines to support his desired results. Allegations abound that Hwang switched samples to cover up the falsification of data and potentially embezzled research funds.
Additionally, Hwang publicly misstated the quantity of eggs his research team had used to create the embryonic cells, initially claiming only 427 eggs were procured and that these were taken from consenting donors who had received no compensation. After the scandal came to light, the South Korean National Bioethics Committee eventually found he had used at least 2221 eggs from 119 women and that he had paid for eggs from at least 66 of the women.
Athough Hwang claimed to have followed strict informed consent guidelines, many of the women were not told the full risks that donating their eggs entailed. Of the 79 women who donated their eggs at the MizMedi infertility clinic to be used by Hwang, 15 developed ovarian hyperstimulation, and two of these women required treatment at a hospital for their symptoms.
Furthermore, Hwang reportedly coerced his female lab technicians and graduate students to donate eggs. One student reported she felt obligated to donate after she accidentally spilled an egg tray but became "disgusted with herself" after she later conducted research on her own cells. Allegedly, Hwang implicitly or explicitly used the threat of not allowing his assistants to become co-authors with him unless they donated their eggs. He also allegedly collected forms from his female technicians in which they pledged to donate eggs. In one case, Hwang reportedly even accompanied an assistant to the hospital where the donation occurred.
Hwang apologized for publishing the false data, but blamed the fraud on researchers working with him. The government-initiated legal case against Hwang for fraud, embezzlement and violations of bioethics laws is still in the South Korean courts.
However, the victims of Hwang's egg donation schemes might be without redress for their injuries. The women sued the clinics where the procedures had taken place, arguing that they had been harmed physically and psychologically because they had not been told the full risks, including potential infertility, of the donation procedure. They also argued that the defendants had not told them of the real use of their eggs. The women named the South Korean government as a defendant, claiming that the government's feverish support of Hwang made it an accomplice in his illegal research scheme. The court dismissed the case on February 18, 2009.
The decision ignores the harm that the women suffered and sends a message that researcher's bad behavior will not be fully punished. The Hwang debacle illustrates the dangers of putting all our research eggs into one basket, especially when those eggs belong to someone else.