Human Nature

Breaking Eggs

The lesson of the Korean cloning scandal.

When Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk announced last May that he had cloned human embryos and derived stem-cell lines from them, researchers and doctors all over the world thought we were on our way to curing terrible diseases. By cloning an embryo from you, we could grow tissues that would match you genetically and could repair anything that broke down in your body.

But that was only half the story. The other half was about human eggs, which are needed to clone embryos. In 2004, Hwang reported that his team needed 248 eggs to make a single stem-cell line. In an article accompanying Hwang’s 2005 report, David Magnus and Mildred Cho of Stanford University explained the ethical problems with using so many eggs:

[W]omen who agree to donate oocytes entirely for research purposes … are not pursuing the procedure for any reproductive or medical benefit to themselves; rather, they are exposing themselves to risk entirely for the benefit of others. If we were to think of them as simply clinical patients, their physician’s fiduciary obligations would seem to require counsel against undergoing such a procedure for no benefit. Between 0.3 and 5% or up to 10% of women who undergo ovarian stimulation to procure oocytes experience severe ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can cause pain, and occasionally leads to hospitalization, renal failure, potential future infertility, and even death.

The big news about Hwang’s 2005 breakthrough, according to the New York Times, the Washington Post, Slate, and numerous other outlets, wasn’t just that he had cloned stem-cell lines for so many patients. It was that he had done it with so few eggs. As the Post observed, Hwang “needed only 17 eggs on average to make each batch of stem cells. … That means a single egg-retrieval procedure of the sort used routinely in fertility clinics is now adequate to produce a colony of personalized cells.” From the standpoint of an egg-donating woman, cloning had become as safe as IVF. The Post concluded, “If therapeutic cloning can indeed be achieved with the same efficiency as such a widely accepted medical procedure, it would deeply undercut one of the major ethics arguments against it: that it would require egg donations by countless women—at some risk.”

That was the spin. Then came reports that Hwang hadn’t gotten the eggs in the manner he’d advertised. In his research paper, he had claimed, “Patients voluntarily donated oocytes… [N]o financial reimbursement in any form waspaid.” But by late November, he’d been forced to admit that many of the 248 eggs for the study he’d published in 2004 had been purchased from women—an ethical offense, since it commercializes living human tissue and attracts economically vulnerable donors—and that others had come from female junior researchers on his team. “Such practices are considered highly unethical in international scientific circles,” the Post explained, “because of the potential for subtle coercion, given the hierarchal structure of lab research—something especially true in South Korea.” Hwang pleaded that he didn’t know where the eggs had come from, and he cited the good that would come from his research: “Being too focused on scientific development, I may not have seen all the ethical issues.”

I almost stepped forward to defend Hwang. I didn’t like the way his team had gotten the eggs, and I didn’t believe his assertions of ignorance. But I couldn’t get out of my head the astounding advance he had achieved in efficiency. If we could get a stem-cell line from a batch of eggs no bigger than what we already get from one round of hormonal stimulation for IVF, Hwang would have done far more good than ill for women. Sometimes, as they say, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.

That’s when the other shoe dropped. Hwang hadn’t just lied about the eggs. He’d lied about the omelet. None of the stem-cell lines he produced had been cloned. He’d accomplished nothing. As far as we knew, it still took 248 eggs to make one cloned embryo.

I guess we’ve run out of shoes, so what dropped next were Hwang’s trousers. A scientific panel investigating his 2005 study announced that he’d lied about the number of eggs as well as their sources. Hwang said he’d used 185 eggs. A former colleague said he’d used as many as 1,100. Maybe Hwang’s 2004 study, in which he claimed to have gotten one stem-cell line from 248 eggs, was a fraud like his 2005 study. Maybe the cost-benefit ratio wasn’t 248 eggs to one stem-cell line. Maybe it was 1,100 to zero.

Now comes a Korean television report that Hwang directly pressured at least one of his researchers to provide eggs. “I hope I can forgive myself for not being able to stand up to the professor,” the researcher wrote in an e-mail message obtained by the network. On the broadcast, a member of Hwang’s team said of the researcher, “She said she told Professor Hwang she wouldn’t go through with the procedure, and she said Professor Hwang got upset and said, ‘Why not?’ … She was worried [that Hwang would deprive her of public recognition for her work], and it was out of worry that she decided to donate her eggs.” The woman reportedly ended up experimenting, as part of her job, on eggs she had relinquished the same day.

I won’t be surprised if the panel investigating Hwang confirms this report. It’s been pretty clear since November that he broke rules to get the eggs. What galls me this time isn’t just that the coercion has been made explicit. It’s that we’ve learned, in the interim, that it was for nothing. It isn’t the 1,100 that infuriates me. It’s the zero.

Next time somebody says you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, I’m going to take a good, long look at the omelet.