Stem cell teamwork stops after split

American stem cell scientists reluctant to move forward with U.S.-Korea collaborations

By | November 18, 2005

American scientists said they are hesitant to collaborate with Korea on stem cell work after a U.S. stem cell scientist ended his 20-month collaboration with Woo-Suk Hwang of Seoul National University in South Korea, whose lab has derived human embryonic stem cell lines through somatic cell nuclear transfer.

Gerald Schatten, director of the Pittsburgh Development Center and professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, stated in a November 12 news release that he is ending his work with Hwang because he is concerned that human egg cells used to make stem cell lines were obtained unethically.

The move has halted other researchers' plans to collaborate with Hwang. At Harvard University, "there were several people in discussions about establishing possible collaborations with Hwang's group," said B.D. Colen, a science communications officer at Harvard. But these discussions are now "all on hold," he said.

The allegations "are serious charges and they'll have to be in some way resolved before everybody will be comfortable moving forward," said Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Tissue Biology at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF). Hwang and Schatten approached UCSF about serving as a satellite lab for the Korean hub, Kriegstein said, but the university declined. "Our primary concern was exactly the area that Dr. Schatten is now highlighting," he said.

"Until this is cleared up, no one's going to collaborate with the Koreans from the United States," Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told The Scientist. "Using embryos that may have come from eggs that were obtained through coercion or payment is going to be viewed with a lot of wariness," he said.

The break between Hwang and Schatten "underscores the need to have practices for oocyte donation that are transparent, reasonable, and agreed upon by the broad community," said Larry Goldstein, professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego. Establishing such practices internationally will be "a very complicated problem," he added. "My bias is that that's an appropriate role for scientific societies."

After Hwang and his colleagues announced in 2004 that they had derived stem cells from a cloned human embryo, a news article in Nature quoted a Ph.D. student from Hwang's lab saying that she and another junior colleague donated eggs for the experiments. She later retracted her statement and, in a subsequent Sciencestory, Hwang and a colleague denied that any lab members had donated eggs.

In Schatten's statement, however, he said that he recently received information suggesting that there were in fact ethical breaches in oocyte donation. He also said that he cannot yet reveal the specific nature of this information, but that he has contacted "appropriate academic and regulatory agencies."

"It's just really unclear what it is that Schatten is alleging," Goldstein told The Scientist. "It's not clear whether it's an issue about the source of the eggs or the arrangements that were made to procure them."

Schatten is also suspending ties with the World Stem Cell Hub, an international consortium that scientists announced in Korea last month, which will provide disease-specific cell lines to researchers all over the world. Schatten was slated to be chairman of the Board of Directors for the hub, according to his statement.

Neither Schatten nor Hwang is saying much on the subject. An email sent to Schatten requesting an interview was answered by medical center spokesperson who said Schatten had "nothing more to say about the disassociation with Professor Hwang" and was taking a "media break." Hwang has told other outlets he will investigate the allegation and "divulge everything" at an appropriate time.

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