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Korea and beyond: Hwang faces criminal charges as the scandal widens to the United States

Genetic Crossroads
January 27th, 2006

Repeated fabrications, layers of lies and cover-ups, and numerous other breaches by Hwang Woo-Suk and his colleagues have mushroomed into what some are calling the biggest scientific fraud in living memory.

While some stem cell researchers are downplaying the significance of the scandal, others recognize that embryonic stem cell research—and especially the small portion of it that involves cloning techniques—present unprecedented ethical and regulatory challenges, and acknowledge that meaningful oversight and enforceable regulations are urgently needed.

It can happen here

Around the world, stem cell research is taking place in an intensely overheated environment that can all too easily lead scientists to cut both technical and ethical corners. Many of the social and economic dynamics surrounding stem cell research in South Korea are very similar to the dynamics at play in the U.S. and other countries:

  • Inflated hopes for stem cell research are being stoked by irresponsible promises of imminent cures.
  • The prospect of treatments based on cloning procedures is being particularly overstated; the risks it poses have been particularly underplayed.
  • Researchers and companies are competing for patents and prizes, mixing scientific endeavors with potentially hugely profitable enterprises.
  • Large sums of public money are being spent with far too little public oversight and control.
  • Public understanding of the issues involved remains incomplete.
Hwang Woo-Suk and Gerald Schatten

In the U.S.: Hwang's collaborators

South Korean prosecutors are considering questioning stem cell researcher Gerald Schatten, a senior author of the fraudulent 2005 cloning paper in Science. An investigation of Schatten by his employer, the University of Pittsburgh, is expected to be completed next month.

Schatten's role in Hwang's work is larger than he initially acknowledged, and his involvement in the cloning scandal has not yet received a full airing. Many news reports have suggested that it was Schatten who blew the whistle on Hwang's unethical behavior in procuring eggs for his cloning experiments. But other motives may have been in play.

In mid-2004, Schatten filed for a U.S. patent on cloning technology without crediting his Korean collaborators. (Hwang did the same thing a few months later, filing for an international patent without mentioning Schatten.) Merrill Goozner, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, reports that in spite of these patent applications, neither Schatten nor Hwang reported any conflicts of interest in the 2005 Science article or in a 2005 paper published in Nature about the cloning of a dog.

The other U.S. co-author of the now-discredited cloning articles is Jose Cibelli, a researcher at the University of Michigan, which is also carrying out an investigation. Cibelli formerly did stem cell research at Advanced Cell Technologies, which was involved in a number of widely criticized cloning experiments. Until last week, Cibelli was a member of the Standards Working Group of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, but resigned after a press call to the CIRM about his involvement with Hwang.

In South Korea: Criminal investigation, political fallout, conflicts of interest

Government prosecutors in South Korea have widened their criminal investigation of Hwang Woo-Suk and his colleagues, raiding homes and offices, questioning more than 50 researchers, and issuing bans on travel outside the country by more than two dozen people involved in the scandal. One official has expressed concerns that some of Hwang's former collaborators have been planning alibis in anticipation of the investigation. Hwang, who received more than $42 million of public money for his work, could face charges of fraud or embezzlement.

Several high-level government officials have resigned because of clear conflicts of interest. They include the head of the National Bioethics Committee, who was simultaneously acting as Hwang's lawyer and heading the panel responsible for reviewing the ethical standards of his research, and the South Korean President's senior science advisor, who has received funds from Hwang, and who many believe was included as a co-author of Hwang's 2004 cloning paper as payback for her political and financial support.

Prominent scientists fail to learn from scandal

Some scientists have been unable or unwilling to recognize the seriousness of the scandal. A few examples:

Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science magazine, which recently retracted both of Hwang's cloning papers, said last week that he "would not be bothered by" using the eggs of lab researchers in stem cell experiments. "There's a long tradition of people in labs doing experiments on each other," Kennedy told an audience at Stanford University, where he formerly was president.

When the San Francisco Chronicle asked California Institute for Regenerative Medicine president Zach Hall what will prevent fraud and ethical lapses like the recent ones from occurring in California, he responded, "Scientists." He continued, "What will not stop this from happening is government oversight." The Chronicle's editorial writer was unconvinced. "With business and political capital—not to mention the state's image as a technological innovator—on the line, the stem-cell institute needs oversight, both regulatory and scientific," the editorial said.

Evan Snyder, director of the Stem Cell and Regeneration Program at the Burnham Insitute, commented on the recent scandal, saying that "governmental intervention...is not what is called for....It's the scientific community itself that caught these errors....The system does work." He failed to note that junior scientists who posted their initial suspicions of Hwang's work on blogs felt they had to do so anonymously. Moreover, it was investigative journalists, not scientists, who uncovered the ethical breaches in South Korea.

Related articles:

"Disgraced cloning pioneer could keep his patents," New Scientist (January 18)

"Hwang Debacle Seen as 'Regression of Democracy'," The Korea Times (January 12)

"Researcher Faked Evidence of Human Cloning, Koreans Report," New York Times (January 10)

"Pitt biologist trying to patent human cloning process," Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (January 7)


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