Cloning Crisis Deepens

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South Korea's stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk leaves his office at the Seoul National University

For South Korean scientist, cloning pioneer and Snuppy creator, Woo Suk Hwang, things keep going from bad to worse. Last month, he had to admit that as part of the groundbreaking stem cell research he published in 2004, one of his colleagues had paid some women for their egg donations, and that two of the unpaid donors were Hwang’s own junior researchers. Amid the ethics controversy that ensued, Hwang was hospitalized for extreme fatigue and exhaustion. He was released earlier this week, only to find one of his former researchers on a national newscast claiming that the history-making stem cell lines Hwang created were fake.

The newscast was part of a multipart investigative series by Korea’s MBC-TV. Also in the broadcast, the researcher said that Hwang had told him to fabricate data in order to make it appear as if the South Koreans had created more stem cells, made from patients with diseases, than they actually had. “This is something I shouldn’t have done,” said the researcher, whose face was not shown on camera and was only identified by his last name, Kim. “I had no choice but to do it.”

In a separate interview, Roh Sung-Il, the doctor who had provided donated eggs to Hwang’s research, said that Hwang had asked Science, the journal that published his paper on patient-specific stem cells, to withdraw the publication. A spokesperson at the journal said that they had not yet received a retraction request, but have e-mailed all 25 co-authors asking for clarification of the fabrication allegations. Roh told news media that of the 11 stem cell lines created from patients with diseases, nine were fake. Whether the two remaining lines were valid, and photographed repeatedly to stand in for the other lines, is not clear. Roh also claims that after a visit to Hwang on Thursday, he believes there were no stem cells at all, and that all of the colonies had died in the lab. “I heard some things that I haven’t been aware of when I visited Professor Hwang at his request, that there are no embryonic stem cells,” he told MBC.

These latest allegation comes just 24 hours after a former Hwang collaborator, Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, charged Hwang with fabricating his data. Back in June, the two men had co-authored a paper published in Science that detailed how individual stem cell lines were created for 11 patients through cloning. When Hwang’s ethics breaches were uncovered last month, Schatten was already publicly distancing himself from his onetime colleague. But on Tuesday, Schatten, took the next step and asked that his name be removed from the work. His reasons? “Careful re-evaluations of published figures and tables,” he said in his letter, “along with new problematic information, now casts substantial doubts about the paper’s accuracy.” Hwang has still not responded to these new accusations, and Schatten has declined to comment further.

Hwang’s academic affair is the latest plot twist in a drama that’s playing out in the Korean press. Several days after Schatten’s initial break with Hwang, Seoul’s news outlets cited a Korean government official and other sources in both Korea and the U.S., claiming that Schatten had met with Hwang in October and asked for 50% of the patent on the patient-specific stem cell cloning technique. Schatten also reportedly asked to be named chairman of the board of the newly created World Stem Cell Hub, a research center funded jointly by the South Korean government and private interests. The South Koreans reportedly denied his requests.

Despite all the negative publicity, Hwang’s popularity didn’t seem to be suffering too much. At home, he is enjoying emotional swells of support from thousands of women who have lined up outside his lab doors pledging their willingness to donate eggs to his research.

Still, Hwang has a lot of explaining to do. He is already being investigated by his own university. And earlier this week, eight stem cell scientists, led by Dolly cloner Ian Wilmut, submitted a letter to Science, noting that “accusations made in the press about the validity of the experiments published in South Korea are, in our opinion, best resolved within the scientific community... we encourage Hwang’s laboratory to cooperate with us to perform an independent test of his cell lines.” At stake, say the scientists, is the fledging field of stem cell science, which holds the potential of introducing new ways to treat disease.

Until such testing is completed, it seems the intrigue and the accusations will only continue to deepen. Hopefully, once Hwang is back in the lab, the questions swirling around in the press about his work will be answered. Unfortunately, that may take a while. Hwang is back in the hospital, this time in the psychiatric ward.