The Rise and Fall of the Cloning King

Woo Suk Hwang led the world in human cloning and became a national hero in South Korea. Now he's a scientific pariah. Inside his demise

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AHN YOUNG-JOON / AP

HUMILIATION: At a packed Dec. 16 press event, Hwang withdrew a key research paper

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Evidently, the risk-taking began in 2004, with Hwang's first major scientific paper on therapeutic cloning. In order to clone an adult, you need to put one of its cells into a human egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. After electrical fusion and chemical activation, the egg can then start dividing, creating embryonic stem cells. (If left to mature, the embryo could eventually grow into a clone of the original adult--something no reputable scientist would let happen.)

But because egg donation is a painful and potentially risky process, paying women to do it is considered a form of coercion. Indeed, the 2004 study said women had "voluntarily donated oocytes ... and no financial reimbursement in any form was paid." But last spring, two of Hwang's researchers let slip to a journalist working for Nature that they had donated their own eggs--which raised questions, since Hwang was their boss, about whether they had been coerced.

The women retracted their story, claiming that their poor English had caused them to misspeak. But by then an aggressive investigative team from MBC, a Korean TV network, had got wind of the allegations. The reporters interviewed many of the egg donors, some of whom said they had not been told they were part of a study, and confirmed that their eggs had been paid for. MBC was also hot on the trail of something even bigger: a tip that Hwang's 2005 Science paper might contain fraudulent data. To verify the allegations, MBC requested samples of the stem cells, which Hwang provided. Pursuing their lead, the journalists tracked down two of three researchers from Hwang's lab who had gone to the University of Pittsburgh to work with his American collaborator and co-author, Dr. Gerald Schatten. They tried to strong-arm the Koreans into confirming the charges of data manipulation, and soon after, Schatten abruptly announced that he was terminating his partnership with Hwang, citing "information ... suggesting that misrepresentations might have occurred." A day before the MBC report aired in Seoul on Nov. 22, Sung Il Roh, head of Seoul's MizMedi Women's Hospital, which processed the egg donors for Hwang's study, admitted publicly that he had paid 16 of the women participating in Hwang's research about $1,500 each for "transportation expenses." Hwang, said Roh, knew nothing about the payments.

At the same time, Korea's vibrant Internet culture started buzzing with allegations by two anonymous posters that photos in the 2005 paper purported to be of different stem-cell cultures were in fact identical, and that DNA fingerprints used to prove that the stem cells were derived from clones seemed suspicious. In retrospect, says Dr. Katrina Kelner, a deputy editor at Science, "these looked too clean" to be legitimate.

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