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PSPD    People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy

  • Socio-Economic
  • 2005.11.23
  • 2192
  • 첨부 1
Statement of Korean Civil Society Organizations on Unethical Experiments performed by the South Korean Stem Cell Scientists Team led by Prof. Woo Suk Hwang

- Prof. Woo Suk Hwang should tell the truth about his team’s experiments - The Presidential Assistant on Information and Science Ki Young Park must carry responsibility

Sung-il Roh, head of the fertility clinic at Seoul’s MizMedi Women’s Hospital, has confirmed that some of the concerns about the stem cell research team led by Woo Suk Hwang that had previously only circulated as rumour were in fact true. Roh spoke at a news conference and on an edition of MBC’s PD Notes, a popular current affairs programme. The truths disclosed so far are: Hwang’s team used commercially traded eggs; some of the eggs were procured from two women members of the research team; and the Institutional Review Board had verified the experiments’ ethical and scientific validity in an insufficient and unfaithful manner. Those findings come as a great shock to Korean civil society, which has, since the late 1990s, persistently called for the government to enact a bioethics law for life sciences that deal with the human body in a transparent way with social consensus.

Immediately after the journal Science published Hwang’s research in 2004, at a time when no regulations had been developed in South Korea because the legal position on embryonic cloning had not yet been decided, we civil societies criticized Hwang’s research team for rushing into experiments with financial support from the government. We also voiced our concerns that the commercial trade in eggs would further increase with Hwang’s success in experiments. The programme demonstrated that our concerns were well founded. In May 2005 a special feature in the journal Nature discussed in detail the ethical doubts surrounding Hwang’s research, worrying about the possible negative impact on stem cell research itself as well as on Hwang’s team if the concerns turned out to be real. Since then, Korean civil society has called for the team to answer the allegations about its work. And the same requests came from the National Human Rights Commission and the Korean Bioethics Association.

According to yesterday’s television programme, at least 600 eggs were provided to Hwang’s team through the Mizmedi Hospital. This may not represent a breach in law, because no relevant bioethic law had been passed in South Korea, but the team will not be able to avoid accusations over ethics from home and abroad. The ethical guidelines for medical doctors in South Korea prohibits the commercial trade of human sperm and ova, and the U.S. National Academy of Science prohibits payment for eggs in its research guidelines. Even in the United States, where private funds are also allowed for human stem cell experiments, human eggs are traded mainly for infertility treatment.

It is more serious that Hwang’s team used eggs obtained from subordinate scientists in the lab. The Helsinki Declaration states that “when obtaining informed consent for the research project the physician should be particularly cautious if the subject is in a dependent relationship with him or her or may consent under duress.” In a TV interview Hwang said that he had tried to dissuade scientists at his lab from donating their own eggs, and argued that he had not known if they had later done so. It is not easy to accept his claims. Regardless of whether the women researchers donated their eggs voluntarily or not, Prof. Hwang cannot be free from criticism from home and abroad for using eggs obtained from his student researchers. This is not only ultimately unethical, but also a shameful scandal in world science history.

It was found that the Institutional Review Board had insufficiently examined the procedural transparency of Hwang’s research. The Board is an independent standing body which reviews medical and ethical validity of research projects before clinical experiments. The Board functions to protect human rights and the safety of subjects according to ‘Korean Good Clinical Practice’ and ‘Bioethics and Safety Law’. In the United States, if problems are found by this kind of board, clinical experiments are suspended and financial support is cut off. The procedural transparency of Hwang’s research was impaired by the Board’s insufficient and perfunctory review.

It is of note that Hwang and his associates have come out with stories that differ from those facts that have been revealed. Hwang’s research published in the journal Science in 2004 stated that eggs are voluntarily donated. Whenever challenged over the allegations of obtaining eggs from student researchers, Hwang stated: “I checked the donors list by myself but I could not find any of my students on the list.” However, the recently revealed facts conflict with his statements and imply that he was aware of his researchers’ donation in advance. If then, Hwang is to continue denying prior knowledge, not only is the ethicality of the process of obtaining ova in question, but also international trust in Korean science may well be harmed. There have already been direct and indirect harm to many other Korean researchers. For the sake of other scientists, Hwang should not hide the truth for any longer.

The Presidential Assistant on Information and Science, Ki Young Park, cannot be free from Hwang’s scandal, as she was co-author of Hwang’s article published in the journal Science in 2004. Park said in an interview with the journal Nature that she had not contributed that much to Hwang’s experiments, and, in responding to the questions about the presence of her name on the paper, claimed that she had just provided advice on bioethical matters. Thus, it is fair to say that she admitted to being included as a co-author without contributing much to the research. Her ethical status as a high-level official in science and technology policy has already been forfeited. Park should hold herself accountable for this.

We are very concerned about both the national interests-based pronouncements and the current atmosphere in South Korea in which the results of the experiments are the overriding consideration in responding to Hwang’s scandal. International institutes and scientists will not be willing to cooperate with Korean science if it ignores international ethical standards on the basis of the atmosphere at home and public opinions distorted by national interests, and Korea will be ultimately isolated from the international scientific community. Thus, hiding the true is not beneficial to the national interest; rather it is harmful to it. Clearly clarifying all aspects of this alleged scandal is the only way for Korean life science to avoid isolation and criticism from the international science community and to keep moving forward. An attitude putting all emphasis on results should never be tolerated; life science especially should be based on strict ethical transparency.

Prof. Hwang should provide truthful answers to the allegations suggested at home and abroad. We are keeping our eyes on Hwang’s research team and governmental responses. The government should clarify the truth of the allegations by positively investigating the scandal. The government should also learn from this scandal that its arbitrary policy on life science is problematic. The government should sufficiently clarify problems arising in the research process and it should eliminate any possible problems before deciding its support for a research project. Regardless of what Hwang says, the government should carry out an objective investigation into the research project, which is the only way to settle other controversies that could arise after Hwang’s press conference. If the government continuously tries to appeal to public opinions with temporizing measures or attempts to hide the facts alleged, it deserves more serious criticism from home and abroad.

23 November 2005

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