updated 12/20/2005 6:10:49 PM ET 2005-12-20T23:10:49

In a further blow to the credibility of the South Korean researcher who claimed to be the first to clone a human embryo, the journal Science said Tuesday it’s now investigating a 2004 study it published that first brought Hwang Woo-suk to prominence.

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At issue are two vital photographs that Hwang used to illustrate his breakthrough claim. They appear identical to photos published previously in another journal on an unrelated topic.

The latest allegation adds to a long list of charges leveled against the fallen “cloning king” in the past month.

Hwang maintains his central findings, published in two Science papers in 2004 and 2005, are legitimate. But he has admitted to ethical lapses and sloppy reporting and has asked for the 2005 cloning paper to be retracted.

The mess has prompted a growing number of critics in the scientific community to assert that Hwang’s credibility is all but destroyed; many doubt that his claims to have extracted human embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos will hold up.

If the photographs are duplicates, the mistake could be due to careless handling — an excuse Hwang gave for a similar photo foul-up previously exposed. Others, though, including two co-authors on the 2005 paper, are beginning to believe that much of Hwang’s work was fabricated.

The newest controversy arises from two photographs of stem cells that appeared in 2003 in the journal Molecules and Cells in an article describing a routine experiment. The very same photos also appear to have been used by Hwang in February of the following year in a Science article, purporting to be stem cells derived from cloned human embryos, claimed at the time as a scientific first.

“The editors of Science are reviewing both the 2004 and 2005 papers from Dr. Hwang’s laboratory in light of new questions about the authenticity of images in the 2004 paper,” the journal said in a statement Tuesday. “So far, there has been no substantiated charge.”

A Science spokeswoman said the journal was awaiting results from investigations at Seoul National University, Hwang’s employer, and the University of Pittsburgh, which employs Gerald Schatten. He served as senior author on Hwang’s 2005 cloning paper. Science has yet to formally retract that paper.

Human eggs
Also on Tuesday, a former collaborator in South Korea said he had provided hundreds more human eggs, for cloning experimentation, than Hwang claims to have used in his 2004 study.

Roh Sung-il, chairman of the board at Seoul’s Mizmedi Hospital, said the hospital provided more than 900 eggs from 65 women for research that led to the paper Hwang published in the journal Science in June of this year.

In that, his second Science report, Hwang claimed he used just 185 human eggs to create custom-made embryonic stem cells for 11 patients. That publication won Hwang international acclaim for his cloning efficiency.

Hwang conceded in November that two subordinate scientists had donated eggs and other women were paid to take fertility drugs to produce eggs for research. Both practices are viewed as coercive and unethical in the West.

Last week, Hwang said he would ask Science editors to retract the June paper that detailed his claim to have extracted tailor-made stem cells by cloning DNA from sick patients. Hwang admitted he made “fatal errors and loopholes in reporting the scientific accomplishment” after weeks of growing skepticism of his work. That skepticism was fueled, in part, by young South Korean scientists anonymously posting damaging evidence on a scientific Web site based in Seoul.

The latest accusations against Hwang and the questions about the validity of his first paper were initially made on the same Web site.

Hwang did not respond to two e-mail inquiries from The Associated Press.

Stem cells are created in the first days after conception and mature into every cell in the human body. Scientist hope to use stem cells as replacement parts for failing organs and to treat diabetes, Parkinson’s and other diseases.

Researchers want to harvest stem cells by cloning the DNA of sick people in hopes of avoiding rejection problems typical in organ donations today. Also, researchers hope to use cloned stem cells to study how diseases begin and develop.

But no scientist had been able to clone a human embryo until Hwang emerged from obscurity with his cloning claim in 2004.

No scientist has since been able to replicate Hwang’s feat, except Hwang himself.

Several prominent stem cell researchers and cloning experts have called for an independent investigation of Hwang’s work.

“I do believe that Hwang’s laboratory achieved what they described, but then were careless,” said Scottish cloning expert Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep in 1997.

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