Just when you thought it was safe to open your newspaper again, South Korea's infamous Dr. Woo Suk Hwang, the world's first human cloner, is taking his affront to human dignity to new heights. You will remember that this was the fellow who first obtained stem cells by cloning embryos and "disaggregating" them. Then he cloned the world's first dog. Then he came up with the preposterous idea that scientists should write their own ethics rules. And now he is planning to traffic human embryonic stem cells around the globe.
As The Scientist (an online science news service) notes, not every country will let their scientists buy the cells. But most will. The report singles out Germany and Canada as states that have laws to keep out trafficked stem cells, as well as to forbid cloning back home. Yet it notes that only one or two U.S. states have legislation that would prevent scientists from buying Hwang's stem cellsproviding, of course, which they use private (or, in some cases, state) dollars. So the remains of Dr. Hwang's ghoulish experiments, that make human embryos by cloning before pulling them apart for their stem cells, could end up in a lab near you.
Some have wondered why the Koreans have been so successful in the quest for the unholy grail. The online magazine Slate discusses this at surprising length, and it lays out a series of factors that have made Seoul the capital of the soulless world of stem-cell harvesting. Hwang himself credits Korean chopstick competencies that lead researchers to have strong manipulative skills (though this does not explain how Singapore, with its vast biotech investment and equal chopsticking skills, or China, with vastly more skilled hands, have yet to make the grade).
Korea is also unencumbered by the kind of public debates about unborn human life (or, indeed, wider issues of science ethics) that have, at times, proven to be a brake on unethical science in other countriesthough there was, in fact, much unease in Korea when the government decided to go the cloning route. One little known fact of Korean culture is that people's ages traditionally include their time in the womb.
Another factor noted is the work ethic: Hwang and his staff, we read, work every day of the year. And he has never had a problem getting hold of hundreds of (human) eggs for his experiments, as his lab assistants and well-wishers are happy to help.
Another fact to note is that the Hwang lab is not very well funded. According to Slate, they have a couple of million U.S. dollars a year. This gives the lie to the California strategy, being pressed or followed now in many states, that throwing vast sums of money into the coffers of the biotech sector will lead to "cures." The answer seems to be, instead of dollars, workaholics with low-grade ethics, chopstick skills, and eggs to spare.
Don't get me wrong: I have fine Korean friends and have enjoyed several visits to Korea, which has some of the most vibrant churches in the world. I hope they are pressing their government and the likes of Dr. Hwang for answersand a change of policy. But if South Korea is neck and neck with the U.K. in the race to the Brave New World, we need to keep asking whyand how we can make sure we don't slip down that precipice after them.
According to a report in Nature, a team at Baylor University medical school has received the go-ahead to study the effects of sex selection on families that opt to pick their baby's gender. There are two basic approaches. One sorts the sperm so that an in vitro fertilization effort will more likely result in either a boy or a girl. The other, which is more common and more efficacious, uses pre-implantation genetic diagnosisthat is to say, it picks the girl or boy embryos and discards or freezes the rest. The Baylor team is doing the latter, and hopes that their results may change the minds of people like the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, the generally liberal physician's trade group that is opposed to sex selection.
One reason why sex selection is so significant is that it marks a huge step forward on the road to "designer babies." If you can pick a baby's sex, why not hair color, height, or aspects of personality? The line between our children and our things gets thinner all the time.
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