from the December 22, 2005 edition -
Questionable stem-cell research in a South Korea case may be the
latest in a series of ethical lapses in 2005.
By Peter N. Spotts | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Is it a matter of shoddy work in the lab? A problem of excessive
deference by junior researchers to senior scientists? Or does the case
of the suspect stem-cell experiments in South Korea - an episode that
is shaking the biomedical field worldwide - point to a severe lapse of
With a probe at Seoul National University just beginning, it is likely
to be some time before investigators can explain what led to apparent
flaws in research -- once celebrated as groundbreaking -- by scientist
Hwang Woo-Suk. His work involved cloning human embryos to garner
highly prized stem cells specific to individual patients -- an ability
seen as an advantage in any future stem-cell therapies.
In the meantime, the case is prompting a closer look at how scientific
journals screen research reports before publication, as well as
forcing a deeper recognition of the intense pressures scientists can
experience while working on cutting-edge, high-stakes research.
"Scientists are not a special breed of human being," says Thomas
Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics institute in
Garrison, N.Y. "But they function in a special environment ... They
are bright people working in a community where the best ideas rise to
the top. If you're not in first place, you're no place."
South Korea's probe at the dawn of what some dub "the biotech century"
caps a year of research-ethics challenges.
. Late last month, a US district court judge in Albany, N.Y.,
sentenced a former Veterans Administration cancer researcher to 71
months in jail for criminally negligent homicide. Paul Kornak admitted
that he had forged medical records, opening the way for people to take
part in drug trials who should have been excluded because of existing
medical conditions. One participant whose records were altered died
during the experiment.
. In October, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology fired a
young biologist and promising immunology researcher. MIT officials say
Luk Van Parijs was dismissed after he admitted to school investigators
that he fabricated and altered evidence in research papers to support
grant applications. MIT, in speaking with the Christian Science Monitor
was succinct in stating their case: "No liars nor cheaters need apply
here. We just won't deal with it."
. In March, a University of Vermont obesity scientist admitted
faking data in order to buttress grant applications. (He netted $3
million in government grants.) Under a deal with US prosecutors, Eric
Poehlman agreed to plead guilty to criminal fraud and to retract or
correct several research papers.
Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health has tightened its rules
for NIH researchers who also serve as consultants to drug companies.
The NIH is trying to walk a tightrope between avoiding conflicts of
interest and ensuring that scientists can engage in the open give and
take today's complex research efforts require. In a survey of NIH-
funded scientists, released in June, only 1.5 percent of 3,000-plus
respondents acknowledged having falsified or plagiarized information.
But 15.5 percent admitted to altering their research approach under
pressure from funding sources, and 12.5 percent admitted to looking
the other way when colleagues used flawed data.
Surveys show that the public consistently holds scientists in high
esteem, perhaps leading many people to assume an unrealistic ethical
purity among them.
If lapses happen in business, "the public says, 'Well, what did you
expect?' " says Mark Frankel, director of Scientific Freedom,
Responsibility, and Law at the American Association for the
Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal Science. The
public tends to be more surprised when the violators are scientists -
although public esteem remains high despite the lapses, he adds.
Biomedical research in particular is a hotbed of economic and
scientific competition. Several countries, including South Korea, are
vying with the US for leadership. So the pressure to lead can be huge.
Dr. Hwang's request last week to withdraw his team's paper on
stem-cell work, published in May in Science, has spurred editors at
the journal to ask whether their peer-review process of evaluating
papers for publication could have caught problems in the Hwang
"A paper that apparently achieves a result that others have tried to
get and failed is subject to especially careful scrutiny," says Donald
Kennedy, Science's editor. "I expect a certain amount of skepticism"
among reviewers as they give papers the once-over. "On the other hand,
I think reviewers generally tend to trust explicit representations" of
the information in the papers.
Science is generally self-correcting, says the Hasting Center's Dr.
Murray. If a paper is published and other scientists fail to reproduce
the results, it is likely to get relegated to the trash bin.
In the end, no system is infallible, ethicists note. "If you have
someone determined to fabricate evidence, no screening system will
catch that," says Alto Charo, a law professor at the University of
Wisconsin who specializes in biomedical and research ethics. "You have
to rely on the integrity of the individual."
In the past decade, federal funding agencies have put more emphasis on
ethical research practices, requiring grant recipients to take ethics
courses or giving grants to scientists at universities with ethics
classes for graduate students, notes the AAAS's Dr. Frankel. These
courses have undergone little evaluation for effectiveness, but
several cases that made headlines this year came to light after fellow
researchers or young protégés became suspicious of data being used and
blew the whistle on their errant colleagues.
Copyright 2005 www.csmonitor.com and the The Christian Science Monitor.
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