Hwang Tries for a Comeback

Posted by Pete Shanks February 5, 2010
Biopolitical Times

Recent news from Korea indicates that Hwang Woo-Suk is making active efforts to salvage his reputation, and to reestablish himself as a force in science. He has resolved at least three court cases and is publishing in peer-reviewed journals. Given his previously demonstrated expertise in public relations, this may be worth watching.

Hwang's legal troubles may be over:

  • His criminal trial ended with a surprisingly lenient sentence.
  • Seoul National University (SNU) has recently decided not to appeal against a judgment that Hwang is now using new technologies that do not infringe SNU's patents.
  • A court ruled in December 2009 against an egg donor who sued for damages, saying that she was informed "of the procedures and possible side effects" and had not demonstrated that she suffered harm because of the procedure.

Meanwhile, Hwang and his team have been at work in the lab. They have cloned several dogs, and published at least three peer-reviewed papers on the subject (1, 2, 3), plus others on related techniques (4, 5). They have also been working with pigs, and published several papers (6, 7, 8).

Hwang has not, however, lost his knack for PR. He cloned a bomb-sniffing police dog, which made good press. And he claimed in May 2009 to have derived embryonic stem cells from cloned pig embryos. A paper on this has been submitted for publication, possibly to Zygote, and is expected later this year. He also announced "a deal with the Gyeonggi provincial government for research on genetically modified pigs to be used for organ transplants."

There have been several rumors that Hwang continues to work with human cloning and deriving ESCs, perhaps in Thailand or elsewhere (China was denied by an associate), though these have not been substantiated. That he intends to do so if he can is certain. In August 2009, at the end of the evidence phase of his criminal trial, he said:

I made a promise to the Korean people in my last press conference on Jan. 12, 2006. I will keep the promise of creating genuine patient-specific stem cells. I would keep the promise in the not-so-distant future if I were given another opportunity.

Moreover, he continues to insist that the stem cell line featured in the retracted 2004 Science paper was in fact derived from a clonal embryo, and not the result of parthenogenesis; there is a recent report that a paper to that effect is under review.

It must be stressed that if that stem cell line was indeed derived from a clonal embryo, it was defective. It seems not be disputed that 8 of 48 markers did not correspond with those that would be expected from a somatic cell donor. That led to the suggestion of parthenogenesis, but some of the experts that supported that have since accepted that it may have been clonal. However, Prof. Seo Jeong-sun told the Korea Times (link no longer available):

First and foremost, Hwang doctored data and that is the most important point without doubts. ... In addition, the No. 1 line would be of little use for experiments or therapeutic applications because it was damaged too severely.

Hwang Woo-Suk's comeback may be under way, and he may be doing some genuine science, but his announcements should be read very carefully and treated with considerable skepticism.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: