Cloning Fraudster Profiled by Big Science Journals

Posted by Pete Shanks January 19, 2014
Biopolitical Times

Many readers of Biopolitical Times will remember the stunning stem-cell fraud scandal that centered on Korean cloning researcher Hwang Woo-Suk. He won global fame in 2004–5, and equally newsworthy humiliation in 2005–6, leading to criminal conviction in 2009. Well, Hwang is back in the news — or perhaps that should be "news."

On Tuesday, January 14, Nature News & Comment ran a piece by David Cyranoski with this headline and summary:

Cloning comeback
Ten years ago, Woo Suk Hwang rose to the top of his field before fraud and dodgy bioethical practices derailed his career. Can a scientific pariah redeem himself?

The article is long, and does not gloss over the fact that Hwang committed fraud and "gross ethical lapses." (Hwang is the surname; Koreans put it first but variants are common.) Overall, however, it does picture him as a penitent, now head of the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation and working to rebuild his reputation. Hwang is quoted after delivering cloned puppies, but not interviewed. Another scientist, named as Insung Hwang (no relation), did speak on the record.

Then on Wednesday, Science Insider published a piece by Dennis Normile, originally titled "After Fraud, Korean Cloner Seeks Redemption" but now (behind a paywall) headed:

The Second Act
After his first turn on the world stage ended in scandal, Woo Suk Hwang has quietly rebuilt his scientific career.

The article is long, and does not gloss over the fact that Hwang had a "central role" in fraud and "dubious" ethical practices. But it focuses on his success in rebuilding his career to the point where he is "in a position many researchers would envy" at the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation he heads. Hwang "declined to be interviewed" but allowed the reporter to witness him at work implanting canine oocytes and delivering cloned puppies. And In Sung Hwang (no relation) did speak on the record.

UC Davis stem cell expert, and blogger, Paul Knoepfler tweeted (Jan 15):

The story was cloned perhaps? ha ha

It's possible, I suppose, that Cyranoski and Normile were unaware of each other's presence at Hwang's lab (the caesarians each describes seem to be different), But once the first story was published, Science Insider could have written a very different account, such as:

Were Science and Nature manipulated to boost Hwang's reputation?

Nature writer Brendan Maher, on Twitter (Jan 16 & 17), wrote that Cyranoski had been asking for access, since the tenth anniversary of one of the retracted papers is imminent, and Sooam recently accepted. Quite possibly, Normile initiated contact too. But the visits were clearly, as Maher said, "carefully orchestrated." Hwang learned a lot from his media experiences ten years ago.

But is anything really significant happening? Hwang is cloning dogs and cows, big deal, he's done that for years. And he's talking about mammoths again. Why should we care? Cyranoski's reporting suggests the answer:

Woo Suk Hwang's greatest coup in terms of regaining legitimacy was establishing a partnership in March 2013 with BGI in Shenzhen, China — the world's largest sequencing facility and a powerhouse in scientific publishing (see Nature 464, 22-24; 2010). Together, they plan to look at modifications of chromosomes that determine how genes are expressed, a field called epigenetics. Analysing the variation between clones and how that may contribute to, for example, different coat patterns in dogs could be a powerful tool for such work.

Yang Huanming, BGI's co-founder, says that he was impressed by the level of involvement from Woo Suk Hwang after watching him deliver a litter of cloned pups. "Personally, I like him, how hard he works, and how passionate he is for science," Yang says.

Normile's reporting makes a similar point (why, they spoke to the same person at BGI!):

"For animal cloning, his team is one of the best in the world," says Yang Huanming, chair of the Chinese sequencing powerhouse BGI-Shenzhen. Eventually, Yang predicts, Hwang "will regain respect from the scientific community."

He's certainly been trying (see the list below of some of our previous posts). The ambitious old fraud who once dreamed of being the first Korean Nobel Prize winner is recasting himself as a scrappy underdog. He still wants to do cloning work with humans; he's had two applications turned down by Korean authorities. He is working with genetically modified cows to produce human proteins, and genetically modified pigs of organ transplants. He turned 60 last year, but has clearly settled in for the long haul.

And he sure knows media.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: