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Claims of fakery swirl around stem cell study

/ Source: The Associated Press

A doctor who provided human eggs for research by cloning pioneer Woo Suk Hwang said in a broadcast Thursday that the South Korean scientist agreed to withdraw a key research paper because most of the stem cells produced for the article were faked.

Roh Sung-il, chairman of the board at Mizmedi Hospital, told KBS television that Hwang had agreed to ask the journal Science to withdraw the paper, published in June to international acclaim. Roh was one of the co-authors of the article that detailed how individual stem cell colonies were created for 11 patients through cloning.

Roh also told MBC television that Hwang had pressured a former scientist at his lab to fake data to make it look like there were 11 stem cell colonies.

In a separate report, a former researcher told MBC that Hwang ordered him to fabricate photos to make it appear there were 11 separate colonies from only three.

“This is something I shouldn’t have done,” said the researcher, who was identified only by his last name, Kim, and whose face was not shown. “I had no choice but to do it.”

Nine of the embryonic stem cell lines Hwang claimed were cloned in the paper were faked, Roh said, and the authenticity of the other two was unknown.

More information sought from Hwang

In Washington, Science said Thursday morning it had not received a request from Hwang to withdraw the article. The journal sent a message to Hwang asking for information, spokeswoman Ginger Pinholster said.

Roh also said Hwang told him Thursday morning that there were no embryonic stem cells remaining from the experiments because all colonies died in the lab.

“I heard some things that I haven’t been aware of when I visited Professor Hwang at his request, that there are no embryonic stem cells,” Roh told MBC. “I thought Professor Hwang Woo-suk was the only person who could settle the latest controversy, but after hearing something so different, I decided to make an announcement thinking there shouldn’t be any more of people’s doubts, waste and distress.”

Hwang was staying at the university’s hospital, spokesman Yang Sung-ki said Thursday evening. The researcher has been undergoing treatment there for stress since last week, the spokesman said.

Internal probe in progress

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, in the Philippines for a state visit, called for caution regarding the reports on Hwang’s work.

“Let’s watch the situation,” Roh said, according to Choi In-ho, the president’s vice spokesman.

University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald Schatten has already asked that Science remove him as the senior author of the report, citing questions about the paper’s accuracy.

Seoul National University announced this week it would conduct an internal probe into Hwang’s research. The university will discuss the probe at a Friday press conference.

Hwang’s team has admitted it made an error that led to duplicated photos accompanying the article, but editors of Science have so far stood by the paper’s findings.

Suspicion on the rise

The work by Hwang, regarded as a world-leading researcher in stem cells, recently has come under a cloud of suspicion. Last month, he publicly apologized after admitting that, despite earlier denials, he used eggs donated by two junior female scientists in his lab — a violation of international ethics guidelines.

Hwang also stepped down as head of the World Stem Cell Hub, an international project launched in October to find treatments for incurable diseases.

Scientists hope that stem cell research could one day lead to finding cures for paralysis and many diseases, including Parkinson’s.