SEOUL--South Korean cloning researcher Woo Suk Hwang and his team received at least 2221 oocytes from 119 women for stem cell experiments, Korea's National Bioethics Committee said in an interim report today, which also described the ethics violations it has found so far.
In two Science papers published in 2004 and 2005, Hwang's team claimed to have created patient-specific embryonic stem cells by replacing an oocyte's nucleus with one from a skin cell taken from the patient (ScienceNOW, 19 May 2005). Last month, an investigation by Seoul National University discredited both reports. The investigation also challenged the team's contention that it had used only 427 oocytes for its experiments, finding that the researchers had received 2061 human oocytes from four hospitals between November 2002 and November 2005 (ScienceNOW, 10 January).
The new report from the bioethics panel adds another 160 eggs to this figure. In addition, the committee found that 66 donors received financial compensation and said one of Hwang's close colleagues told panel members that Hwang authorized the payments. The committee will look into whether any payments were made after 1 January 2005, when a law banning compensation for donated oocytes went into effect, but said it will refrain from commenting on legal issues until after the final report is released.
The panel also found that Hwang's team failed to fully explain the health risks that may result from oocyte donations, but it said the Institutional Review Boards at Seoul National University and Hanyang University's medical center were also to blame for ignoring possible ethics violations in Hwang's research. Furthermore, those who donated their eggs several times signed the consent form only once, the panel reports.
Out of the four hospitals collecting oocytes for Hwang's research, MizMedi Hospital in Seoul was the only one to report that some of its donors developed Ovarian Hyper Stimulation Syndrome (OHSS), a possible side effect of the drugs given to oocyte donors. Fifteen out of 79 MizMedi donors received treatment for OHSS, which in mild cases involves nausea and in severe cases can cause severe pain and liver and kidney damage. Among them, two women were hospitalized, and some of the OHSS patients ended up donating oocytes more than once. However, the committee cautioned it still didn't have exact figures on the number of women who were treated.
At its meeting on Thursday, the bioethics committee debated a draft of a bill that would create new rules governing cloned embryonic stem cell research. Among them is a provision that would prevent a woman from donating eggs more than twice in her lifetime. But Kim Heon-joo, director of bioethics policy at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said the panel members decided to put off the legislation until it finishes its investigation. The committee plans to meet again in late March.