S. Korean's Stem Cell Data Fake, Panel Says
By Barbara Demick and Karen Kaplan
Times Staff Writers
December 23, 2005
SEOUL — A panel investigating the work of South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo Suk has concluded that he deliberately fabricated key data in a landmark paper this year, offering the first evidence of what is potentially one of the greatest frauds in modern science.
The expert panel at Seoul National University, where Hwang conducted his research, found that nine of 11 stem cell lines he claimed to have created did not exist.
Hwang's actions "were not simple mistakes," Roe Jung Hye, head of research at Seoul National University, said Friday. "There was intentional fabrication.
"This activity was major misconduct that damages the foundation of science," Roe said.
After the release of the panel's report, Hwang offered to resign his post at the university's College of Veterinary Medicine.
"I sincerely apologize to the people for creating a shock and disappointment," Hwang told reporters as he left his university office.
The South Korean Ministry of Science and Technology, which had designated Hwang the country's first "top scientist," said it would "consider necessary follow-up measures" and will suspend Hwang's research funds in light of the panel's findings.
Hwang's paper, published in May by the U.S. journal Science, purported to describe the creation of 11 human embryo clones using DNA from patients suffering from spinal cord injuries and genetic diseases. No other research group has succeeded in cloning human embryos, though many have been trying.
Hwang's team claimed it used the embryos to create individualized lines of stem cells that were perfect genetic matches to the 11 patients. The achievement, known as therapeutic cloning, was believed to be the first step toward creating personalized stem cell therapies for patients.
Instead, the expert panel found that only two stem cell lines existed when the paper was submitted to Science on March 15. The validity of those cell lines is still being studied.
"Everyone in the field really wished that the paper was right," said Dr. George Q. Daley, a scientist at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, Mass. "It's just profoundly disappointing and disturbing that this has occurred. It's really hurtful to the whole scientific endeavor."
The revelation shook South Korea, where Hwang has been one of the most beloved figures in the country.
"We are all shocked and depressed by this result," said Kim Chang Kyu, a prominent gynecologist and patient advocate. "I hope that we as Koreans can overcome this phenomenon and learn from our mistakes. In 50 years, we've made good progress … but we have to learn not to be in too much of a hurry."
Hwang and his senior coauthor, Gerald Schatten, a University of Pittsburgh biomedical researcher, asked Science to retract the paper last week.
The panel at Seoul National University said Hwang's team faked the DNA results for the nine stem cell lines by using two sets of regular cells from each patient for genetic comparison.
"As a result, the two types of data could only be identical," Roe said.
Last week, Hwang insisted that his team had created patient-specific stem cell lines and promised to prove it by reproducing his work within 10 days. However, he acknowledged that four of the cell lines described in his original study were no longer available because they had perished after accidental contamination.
The panel, which impounded his computers and laboratory records for its investigation, found that out of the nine lines in dispute, four had indeed died. In the case of three other lines, the investigators found there were colonies of cells, but no evidence that they had been converted into bona-fide stem cells.
They found no records that the final two lines had ever been created.
The panel said it would expand its inquiry to include a 2004 paper, also published in Science, in which Hwang claimed to have created the first human embryo clone and turned it into stem cells.
It also will investigate Hwang's claim this summer of creating the world's first cloned dog — an Afghan hound named Snuppy. Some researchers now suggest that Snuppy — short for Seoul National University puppy — might be a twin created from a split embryo rather than an actual clone.
"This throws all his work into doubt," said Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who spent the summer in Hwang's lab.
"Once a scientist has been exposed as having misled the public and his colleagues, he's going to be under suspicion for everything."
South Korean stocks, led by biotech companies, tumbled on Thursday in anticipation of a damaging report from the university.
One market analyst dismissed the report as "extremely unilateral" and "one-sided."
"My clients share the opinion that the Seoul National University probe committee lacked objectiveness and neutrality," said Choi Chul, assistant manager of a securities company in Seoul. "The probe committee has only taken an action that would save the face of the school, not caring for one of its staff."
But even some of Hwang's staunchest supporters were shaken by the turn of events.
"I feel distressed," said Jeong Ha Gyun, president of the Korean Spinal Cord Injury Assn. "I still want to strongly believe we have the technology to make stem cells."
Many scientists also were disappointed to see Hwang's apparent breakthrough unravel. It means no one has yet figured out a way to conduct therapeutic cloning efficiently, Daley said.
"I still believe there are no theoretical reasons why [therapeutic cloning] wouldn't work," he said. "I'm hopeful that this is a technical barrier that we'll ultimately be able to pass."
Rumors and accusations of scientific misconduct have dogged Hwang for weeks. The 53-year-old researcher had been hospitalized for stress recently.
Hwang has claimed that his research partners at a fertility clinic in Seoul switched the stem cell lines. He filed a petition in court Thursday asking for an investigation of the laboratory at MizMedi Hospital, where some of his research samples had been stored.
MizMedi's chairman, Dr. Roh Sung Il, prompted the university's investigation by telling KBS television last week that Hwang had admitted to him that some of the research he had published was faked.
Demick reported from Seoul and Kaplan from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Jinna Park and the Associated Press contributed to this report.