Jinxed? Problems with landmark paper on human cloning

Michael Cook
25 May 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Last week we reported that researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University had finally cloned human embryos and successfully extracted embryonic stem cells. The study was published in the leading journal Cell and greeted with great jubilation. This was a feat which scientists agreed was possible but was proving unexpectedly difficult. The last time the claim was made, by South Korean Hwang Woo-suk in 2005, it turned out to be a colossal fraud which embarrassed leading journals and dampened enthusiasm for "therapeutic cloning".

Unfortunately, the most recent paper has also been criticised for image duplication, evoking the nightmarish Hwang scandal. "It's a shame that this important area of research has come under scrutiny once again," Kevin Eggan of Harvard University told ScienceInsider. The researchers say that the duplication was unintentional and that these minor errors will not affect the validity of the results.

Cell was also criticised for approving the paper so quickly - it was accepted in only four days and published in another 12. "The four-day review process was obviously inadequate," Arnold Kriegstein, director of the stem-cell programme at the University of California, San Francisco, told Nature. "It's a degree of sloppiness that you wouldn't expect in a paper that was going to have this high profile. One worries if there is more than meets the eye and whether there are other issues with the work that are not as apparent."

Even if the researchers did manage to create a cloned embryo, it is no longer the big news that it once was. As the Boston Globe pointed out, "The emergence of reprogrammed stem cells, the difficulty of the involved method, and the obstacles to obtaining donor eggs for the procedure all make the advance more an important technical feat than a game-changer for stem cell scientists or a platform for new therapies."

As a sign of the times, the leading lobby group for "therapeutic cloning" wound itself up this week and merged with another organisation. The president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) told its members in an email, "Given the progress we are seeing in the field of regenerative medicine, the policy issues we now see go beyond the historical focus of CAMR."