South Korean Scientist Allegedly Fabricated Stem Cell Research Results
South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk has admitted that he did not successfully create embryonic stem cells from 11 patients as he said in an article published in June in the journal Science, according to a colleague who co-wrote the paper, the New York Times reports (Wade, New York Times, 12/16). The colleague, Roh Sung Il, said in newspaper and television interviews in South Korea that Hwang told him he fabricated some of the research results he said he accomplished in the article (Regalado/Fairclough, Wall Street Journal, 12/16).
In a previous article published in Science in March 2004, Hwang said that his research team had inserted the nucleus of an adult cell into a human egg to clone a human cell and produce an embryonic stem cell. In the June article, Hwang said that he used the same technique to produce stem cell lines from 11 patients, an accomplishment that scientists hoped would lead to the production of human tissue from cloned cells.
Roh said, "Nine of the 11 stem cell lines he had said he created didn't even exist" (New York Times, 12/16). "It isn't yet known whether the allegations are true," according to the Journal (Wall Street Journal, 12/16).
Hwang was hospitalized for stress over the past week but returned to his laboratory on Friday morning. At a news conference on Friday, he said, "There have been serious mistakes, but what is for sure is that our research team has produced a stem cell" (Demick/Kaplan, Los Angeles Times, 12/16).
Earlier this week, Gerald Schatten -- a University of Pittsburgh scientist and co-author of the June article -- asked Science to remove his name from the list of authors of the paper because he had "substantial doubts about the paper's accuracy" (Wall Street Journal, 12/16).
In interviews on Thursday, Roh said, "Hwang today made statements totally contrary to what we have believed is right" (New York Times, 12/16). Roh also indicated that he had doubts about the other two stem cell lines.
According to Roh, Hwang told him that his stem cell lines had died and that he had presented lines from the lab where Roh worked in the article. Roh said that they mutually agreed to retract the article. "It was unclear ... whether the suspicion was that Hwang had made stem cells but misrepresented some details about them or that he never made them at all," the Washington Post reports (Brown, Washington Post, 12/16).
According to the New York Times, "the event that led to Dr. Hwang's downfall ... was the posting of a pair of duplicate photos on two Korean Web sites." A photo appeared with the June article that Hwang identified as one of the embryonic stem cells lines he created from cloned human cells.
However, an identical photo appeared with an article in the journal The Biology of Reproduction in October that was identified as an embryonic stem cell line created through the conventional technique.
Roh -- superintendent of MizMedi hospital, where the stem cell line in the photograph was created -- was co-author of the October article (New York Times, 12/16).
Science released a statement that said all co-authors must agree to withdraw the June article before the journal will issue a retraction. Science spokesperson Daniel Kane said that the editors of the journal have received "nothing so far" from the authors (Wall Street Journal, 12/16).
Science spokesperson Barbara Rice said the journal has asked the authors "to clarify these unconfirmed rumors that we are getting," adding that "there is no rush to judgment by Science based on unconfirmed rumors" (New York Times, 12/16).
Monica Bradford, executive editor of Science, said that the journal will wait for the results of investigations at Seoul National University, the lab where Hwang works, and the University of Pittsburgh (Los Angeles Times, 12/16).
Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, said, "I'm truly saddened to hear this report, which, if true, is tragic. But stem cell science holds too much promise for us to allow this incident to detract from the careful, closely supervised work being done in the U.S."
Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said the allegations are "just another reason that this field of research should be allowed to be conducted in the U.S. under the strict supervision" of NIH and a "stringent peer-review system" (Weise, USA Today, 12/16).
Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University who this summer visited the lab where Hwang worked, said, "If it's true, it's going to go down as probably the biggest scandal in science." He said that opponents of stem cell research "will point to this and say, 'Look at who we're dealing with here.' Justified or not, it gives opponents of stem cell research a very easy target" (Los Angeles Times, 12/16).
The New York Times on Friday published a news analysis of the allegations.
Nigel Cameron, president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said that stem cell research "is a hype balloon, and it's been pricked."
However, George Daley, a stem cell researchers at Children's Hospital Boston, said, "The goal is still there and the medical value is still largely theoretical but no less than before" (Kolata, New York Times, 12/16).