A Taste of Things to Come?
The answer, of course, is no. Stem cell research is incredibly valuable to aiding our understanding of basic development and healing and promises to eventually lead to important therapies for a wide range of medical conditions. Everything should be okay then, right?
Not exactly. Instead, we should concern ourselves with what would happen if these high hopes backfired, and the fact that this scenario has already received some play in the mainstream press in regards to the California initiative is a not a great sign. Political cycles are short and voters are fickle. Since voters don’t spend hours a day in biological labs, they don’t have an accurate grasp of the normal timescale of scientific innovation. If the people were expecting results, they want them. Now.
None of this is breaking news, but a subtle aspect of the most important current event in science made me think about this. After his research group became the first to produce lines of stem cells from cloned human embryos, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk became a national hero in South Korea. His stem cell findings were published in two papers in Science in 2004 and 2005, and his report on the world’s first cloned dog was published in Nature in 2005. Almost overnight South Korea became the world’s leader in human cloning and embryonic stem cell research, and official priorities reflected this, as the South Korean government continued to pour money into Dr. Hwang’s research.
It seemed almost too good to be true, and in the end it was. After much speculation on the subject, a panel from Seoul National University reported earlier this week that the human cloning results had been faked (The cloned dog, Snuppy, was apparently real, though). Now Dr. Hwang and some of his associates may even face jail time. More than anything else, this is a lesson in scientific ethics and a reminder for scientific journals and review boards to remain vigilant in their search for science fraud. In addition, this is also a lesson in unbridled enthusiasm. A January 11 article in The New York Times came very close to connecting the dots between the high hopes in South Korea and those in the United States, but instead proceeded to thoroughly distance itself from any useful applications to the West.
Choe Sang-Hun wrote in “Lesson in South Korea: Stem Cells Aren't Cars or Chips”:
After President Roh cut the tape for Dr. Hwang's World Stem Cell Hub in October, thousands of patients with spinal cord injuries, diabetes and other ailment applied for treatment.
"What he delivered certainly looked exciting for the political establishment in Korea," said Robert Triendl, a research coordinator at Riken Research Center for Allergy and Immunology in Japan. "So, step by step, they put him into an ever more powerful position, without really understanding what his work was about."
Professor Gottweis, of the University of Vienna, said that as late as November, when he interviewed Seoul officials for his survey of stem cell regulations, they would not discuss bioethics issues but "only wanted to talk about how to support Hwang."
What struck me was the statement about patients already looking for cures from a center that had not even began its basic research. I can imagine that these are people are not going to be very gung-ho about biomedical research in the future. Although this is an obvious parallel to the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the center created by the November 2004 Initiative, The New York Times failed to make the connection. In fact, the article seemed to go out of its way to avoid any connections:
Through Dr. Hwang's fall, South Korea is belatedly learning that biotechnology is not the forum in which to play out its industrial policy ambitions. Unlike electronics or information technology, where the country excelled by building upon technology pioneered by others, biotechnology is a cutting-edge sector teeming with critics. And the field requires a highly sophisticated regulatory system.
Between this statement and the article’s incredibly unnecessary and pedantic title, the article is very clear that this is only a problem facing South Korea and possibly other developing countries. It seems to say, “Biotech is our territory. Stay away.” Despite this lack of treatment of the subject, there are lessons to be learned here, even for the United States. The main one is that high hopes can backfire very unexpectedly. If the expectations for clinical yields from basic biomedical research are not met in the United States, the high support could backfire, causing public support to dwindle, leading to a decrease in political support.
The solution is not to stop emphasizing science or its benefits, and it is definitely not to go ahead and decrease funding for scientific research now. To the contrary, we need to increase support: the United States has an incredibly poor record regarding stem cell funding in particular due to a Bush administration policy of not allowing federal funding for research on new embryonic stem cell lines. Instead, we need begin place a greater emphasis on the merits of basic science in regards to the pursuit of knowledge. This is something that can start immediately, but mainly this needs to be a long term strategy, taking place most importantly in classrooms, where students should be taught the benefits of inquiry in science, not just the end results (medical treatments, in this case). We also need to be more realistic. Embryonic stem cells are not going to allow paraplegics to walk tomorrow, or even in the next few years. These things take time, and people need to understand that. They may even respect the scientific community more for being honest and upfront.
If we follow these suggestions, then if (or when) the high hopes are not met, the science won’t have to suffer because of it.