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
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:
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.
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
- Public understanding
of the issues involved remains incomplete.
Woo-Suk and Gerald Schatten
In the U.S.:
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.
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.
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.
South Korea: Criminal investigation, political fallout, conflicts
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.
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
scientists fail to learn from scandal
have been unable or unwilling to recognize the seriousness of the
scandal. A few examples:
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
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.
director of the Stem Cell and Regeneration Program at the Burnham
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
cloning pioneer could keep his patents," New Scientist
Debacle Seen as 'Regression of Democracy'," The Korea
Times (January 12)
Faked Evidence of Human Cloning, Koreans Report," New
York Times (January 10)
biologist trying to patent human cloning process," Pittsburgh
Tribune-Review (January 7)