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Advocates hold out hope for stem cells

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NEW YORK — Having spent 23 years in a wheelchair, Wall Street analyst Henry Stifel keeps a close eye on spinal cord research. And he says the latest scientific scandal in South Korea has not dimmed his hope that stem cells may one day help people like him.

“Some research was discredited. It doesn’t discredit all the research that’s been achieved,” said Stifel, who is quadriplegic.

Moira McCarthy Stanford of Plymouth, Mass., whose 14-year-old daughter is diabetic and uses an insulin pump, had a more personal reaction to the news that South Korean researcher Hwang Woo-suk had fabricated results for a landmark 2004 stem-cell paper.

“It’s kind of sad a scientist would do this to people like us,” she said. But “I know so many scientists are out there who are honest and working hard to move this forward, that this (fraud) will all be a distant memory in a couple years.”

Diabetes, spinal cord injury and Parkinson’s disease are among the conditions scientists hope to treat someday by using embryonic stem cells. Officials of disease advocacy groups said Tuesday that they remained optimistic that stem cells will play a role in future treatment.

Some also said the Korean scandal shows stem cell work should be encouraged in the United States.

Hwang’s fraud was revealed Monday night by an investigatory panel at Seoul National University, where Hwang claimed in 2004 his lab had cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells from it.

That made headlines because such “therapeutic cloning” could lead to supplies of stem cells that are a genetic match for particular patients. If those cells could be turned into the appropriate tissue, it could theoretically be transplanted into patients as a treatment without fear of rejection.

But Hwang’s announcement was a sham, the university panel found. (On the other hand, Hwang’s separate claim last August – the first cloning of a dog – was legitimate, investigators said.) Last month, the same panel declared that last year’s blockbuster paper by Hwang, in which he claimed he created 11 stem cell lines genetically matched to specific patients through embryo cloning, was also a fraud.

Both faked papers had been published by the journal Science, which said Tuesday it is reviewing its methods of handling scientific manuscripts. “We are determined to do everything in our power to evaluate our own procedures for detecting research misconduct,” editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy said.

Hwang hasn’t appeared in public since last month, when he said he would resign his faculty position. His whereabouts are unknown. With the discrediting of his papers, there is now no documented recovery of stem cells from cloned human embryos.

Stem cells can also be extracted from ordinary, uncloned human embryos, and advocates say that route could also lead to disease treatments. But that is controversial because it involves destroying the embryos. The Bush administration has banned federal funding for research on stem cell lines developed after August 2001.

That has been the main barrier to embryonic stem cell research in the United States, but the news of Hwang’s fraud might give new support to calls for relaxing that ban, said Robin Elliott, executive director of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

Perhaps “people will feel you cannot outsource this kind of science, that you need to have things going on in what is by far the world’s most prolific scientific engine,” he said.

“We do have to go back some steps and start over on this particular avenue that Hwang was exploring. The question is, why should this not be done here?”

Stanford, the mother of the diabetic daughter, said she remains hopeful that stem cell research will produce new treatments for diabetes.

She recalled that when Hwang announced his now-discredited results in 2004, “that was literally a day when parents like me jumped up and down and cheered, and we were buzzing back and forth across the Internet.

“Now it’s disappointing to know we were scammed by someone. But at the same time … I think there’s going to be another day that we jump up and down, and that time it will be the real thing.”

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