The final verdict is in, and Wu-suk Hwang definitely did not clone human embryos. What he appears to have done is create stem cell lines from parthenogenesis in which eggs are stimulated to divide to the point that stem cells were obtainable. (Parthenogenesis is a form of asexual reproduction that can lead to live births in some fish, reptiles and is a method found in other life forms, but not mammals.) From the story in The Scientist (no link available):
A committee formed by Seoul National University (SNU) concluded last year that the 2004 cell line in question was not derived from SCNT. DNA fingerprinting suggested the line was formed via parthenogenesis, but SNU investigators later admitted to Korean media that the technique couldn’t determine for sure how the line was derived. The new study, published this week in Cell Stem Cell, evaluated the cell line using genome-wide analysis and confirmed it was the result of parthenogenesis. The study “basically validates it genetically once and for all” that the line was derived from parthenogenesis, John McLaughlin, from the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved with the study, told The Scientist.
The ethical question thus becomes whether a dividing egg in human beings that has not been fertilized or the subject of SCNT should be considered an embryo. The jury is out, but from what I know now, the answer would seem to be no since a “parthenote” would seem not to be an organism. Then too, there is the “egg issue.”
Be that as it may, the story also brings some bad news for the would-be-cloners and the politicians who want to fund them to the tune of billions of dollars:
McLaughlin said in humans there are several reports of parthenogenetic embryonic stem cell lines, but so far nothing to show for the extensive efforts to produce lines from SCNT embryos. “This really adds a negative tone to the prospects of somatic cell nuclear transfer. It’s kind of a dying hope at the moment,” McLaughlin said.
Somebody please tell the Stowers Institute in Missouri. Maybe it will give up its cloning dream and build the new research center it is holding up because of continued resistance in the state to human cloning research.