News Articles

South Korean scientist accused
of faking embryonic stem cell research

SEOUL, South Korea (BP)–A major scientific scandal is unfolding in South Korea and its implications are reverberating throughout the world as that nation’s leading stem cell researcher reportedly admitted to falsifying claims that he had made significant progress toward a cure for spinal injuries and diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s.

In May, a team of researchers based at Seoul National University and led by Hwang Woo Suk published a paper in the broadly respected journal Science claiming they had conducted the first successful attempt to clone human embryonic stem cells by inserting an adult cell’s nucleus into a human egg. Hwang claimed to have replicated the feat with 11 patients, thereby creating 11 different stem cell lines, or batches.

But Roh Sung Il, a coauthor of the published paper, delivered news to a Korean television station Dec. 15 that sent the biotech sector of the country’s stock market plummeting by nearly 15 percent and shocked citizens who consider Hwang a national hero.

“Hwang today made statements totally contrary to what we have believed is right,” Roh said, according to The New York Times. “Nine of the 11 stem cell lines he had said he created didn’t even exist.”

At a crowded news conference at Seoul National University the same day, Hwang fervently defended his work, saying five frozen stem cells were in the process of being thawed to serve as proof that his findings were accurate.

“Our research team made patient-specific embryonic stem cells and we have the source technology to produce them,” he told the media, according to The Associated Press. Hwang predicted the evidence would be forthcoming within 10 days.

According to the online Korea Times, Hwang said he will ask prosecutors to investigate whether someone else had tampered with data from his experiments.

Hwang did, however, ask Science to withdraw the May article, citing problems with the photos of stem cells that accompanied the text, which he said included duplicate photos of the same stem cell lines that were accidentally printed.

Gerald Schatten, a researcher at the University of Pittsburg, asked Science to remove him as the senior author of the report in November after questions were raised about ethics violations and the accuracy of the findings.

“This is a major setback for all of science, and especially for stem cell research,” David Magnus, director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics, told Newsday.

“Falsification, fabrication and plagiarism are the big sins that can just never be countenanced in science,” he said, telling the New York-area newspaper that truth is “central to the idea of science. If people lose faith in the veracity of what people are saying, then the entire enterprise is thrown into question.”

Thomas Murray, president of the Hastings Center bioethics research institute, told Newsday, “It’s like a member of your family betraying you,” while Norman Fost, director of the bioethics program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said now, with the allegations dogging Hwang’s lab, “It is hard to believe anything that is coming out of there.”

In October, South Korea’s president, Roh Moo-hyun, opened a World Stem Cell Hub center as part of the nation’s push to be at the forefront of cloning research. And the South Korean government had given Hwang nearly $25 million for his research.

Hwang, in addition to claiming breakthroughs in stem cell research, also was the first scientist to clone a dog, which is named Snuppy and recently was named “invention of the year” by Time magazine. This and other research conducted by Hwang is now under suspicion.

An internal probe has been launched by Seoul National University, where a nine-member investigation panel was appointed Dec. 16 to look into the allegations against Hwang that have put his stem cell research in jeopardy.

As assessed by The Washington Post, “If the work does prove to be largely fraudulent, it will be a major scientific setback for one of the most talked-about new avenues of biomedical research. It could also be a major political setback for the field, which has long been mired in controversy because it depends on the creation and destruction of human embryos.

“Most such research is being done outside the United States because federal law prohibits the public funding of it here, but Congress is poised to consider loosening restrictions,” The Post added. “Advocates for patients fear that an overseas scandal may undermine their campaign to increase U.S. support for what they consider a promising therapeutic strategy.”

In October, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who had earlier split with President Bush on the matter of embryonic stem cell research, said he would try in early 2006 to liberalize Bush’s policy barring federal funds for stem cell research that destroys embryos, and many conservatives hope revelations such as the Hwang controversy will serve to steer legislators away from passing the bill.

Embryonic stem cell research has failed to produce any successful therapies in human beings and has been plagued by the development of tumors in lab animals. Meanwhile, research on stem cells from non-embryonic sources has produced treatments for at least 65 ailments, according to Do No Harm, a coalition promoting ethics in research. These treatments include spinal cord injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and sickle cell anemia. Taking stem cells from non-embryonic sources -– such as bone marrow and umbilical cord blood -– does not harm the donor.

Among reports of advances in adult stem cell research in recent months: Harvard University scientists revealed they have transformed skin cells into embryonic-like stem cells without the use of human eggs or the creation of embryos; a team of Texas and British researchers revealed they have generated what appear to be embryonic stem cells from umbilical cord blood; and University of Pittsburgh scientists said they have discovered embryonic-like stem cells in the placenta.

President Bush’s policy, while barring federal funds for stem cell research that destroys embryos, permits grants for embryonic stem cell lines in existence when he announced his policy in 2001. The federal government also funds stem cell research on adult and other non-embryonic stem cells.
Compiled by Erin Curry Roach & Art Toalston.

    About the Author

  • Staff