ST. LOUIS – The South Korean stem cell scandal has set back researchers and eroded public trust, but it has not undermined hopes for treatments for a wide variety of diseases, scientists said Friday.
In the body, stem cells are master cells that grow into any type of bodily tissue. Cells taken from human embryos are uniquely versatile, and capitalizing on that ability could lead to new treatments for Alzheimer's, type 1 diabetes, spinal cord injuries and a host of other diseases.
However, the stem cell field has suffered from the recent revelation that the South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk faked data used in two landmark papers published in the journal Science in 2004 and 2005, the experts said.
The panel discussed the scandal, as well as ongoing stem cell work, Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The AAAS publishes the journal Science.
The scandal could set back basic researchers by as little as six months. For others anxious to discover new stem cell-based therapies, the delay could be as long as three years, said Dr. Leonard Zon, of the Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Boston.
Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, said the "tragic lies and fraud" connected with the South Korean scandal begged greater regulation — oversight that would ensure future research is done in view of the public.
"Can scientists ever again be trusted to regulate themselves?" asked Zoloth, who visited Hwang's lab before the scandal broke. "I don't know. I think the jury is still out on that one."
Hwang's first article purported to describe the successful creation of stem cells from the world's first cloned human embryos. The second went on to announce the creation of 11 stem cell lines, each tailored for a specific patient, from cloned human embryos.
The findings, now discredited, buoyed hopes that scientists soon would be able to generate stem cells genetically matched to the patients they could theoretically treat.
That so-called "therapeutic cloning" would mean the stem cells, if they could be coaxed into forming different types of tissues, could be transplanted into patients without fear of their being rejected by the body's immune system.
Stem cells also can be extracted from uncloned human embryos, such as those created when a couple undergoes some kinds of fertility treatment. Advocates say those embryonic stem cells also could lead to disease treatments. Opponents decry the method, since it involves the destruction of the embryos.
The Bush administration has banned federal funding for research on stem cell lines developed after August 2001.
That type of opposition drives research behind the closed doors of industry or overseas, Morrison said.
"The work is going to be done, but in a less regulated way and in other places," Morrison said. Correcting that would require further U.S. government involvement and regulation, he added.
Zon said current regulations, while not cumbersome, throw up hurdles that can delay research. At Harvard, Zon said, it's taken two years of wrangling with various regulatory bodies to establish a stem cell program.
Morrison said the only bright side of the Korean scandal is that it means that U.S. researchers are not as far behind their international peers as previously believed.