An academic panel investigating the work of South Korean researcher Woo Suk Hwang said Tuesday that he faked his landmark claim that he cloned human embryos and extracted stem cells from them — capping the spectacular fall of a man once lauded as a pioneer.
The latest revelation by the Seoul National University panel was sure to be a huge disappointment to scientists and patients alike. Hwang’s breakthrough cloning claim had offered hope to millions of people suffering from paralysis and debilitating diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and AIDS.
The same panel concluded last month that Hwang falsely claimed in 2005 to have developed 11 stem cell lines tailored to specific patients.
Hwang “did not have any proof to show that cloned embryonic stem cells were ever created,” the panel said in a report, disputing the central claim in Hwang’s 2004 paper in the journal Science.
In the paper, Hwang said he had cloned a human embryo and extracted stem cells from it. But the university cast doubt on whether an embryo was cloned, saying there is a high possibility it could have merely been a mutated egg, which could appear to have similar qualities of an embryo.
“The 2004 paper was written on fabricated data to show that the stem cells match the DNA of the provider although they didn’t,” the report said.
The panel upheld Hwang’s claims last year to have created the world’s first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy. The journal Nature, which published Hwang’s cloned-dog article, said Tuesday that preliminary results from its independent tests also showed Snuppy was indeed a clone.
That achievement was not regarded as important as the cloning of human embryos, however, as various animals had already been cloned.
‘Severe’ penalty recommended
The university condemned the fabrications and said they should be punished.
“This conduct cannot but be seen as an act that fools the whole scientific community and the public,” the new report said. “Just based on the facts of the fabrications that have been disclosed, the penalty has to be severe.”
Prosecutors said they may launch an investigation after reviewing the panel’s report, said Hwang Hee-chul, the No. 2 official at the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office in Seoul.
South Korean media have reported prosecutors may look into whether his research involved misappropriation of government funds. Yonhap news agency reported Tuesday that prosecutors have barred Hwang and members of his research team from leaving South Korea.
The promise of stem cells
Scientists hope someday to use human stem cells — master cells that can grow into any body tissue — to battle a number of diseases. Creating stem cells genetically matched to a specific patient would be a breakthrough because they would not be rejected by the patient’s immune systems.
But despite years of research, Hwang was the only person to claim success in extracting the cells from a cloned embryo.
The 53-year-old veterinarian had become a national hero in South Korea before the scandal erupted. He was designated the country’s first-ever “top scientist” by the government in June, winning special funding. Korean Air even gave Hwang and his wife free first-class flights for a decade, calling him a “national treasure.”
Since last summer, his reputation has steadily eroded.
In December, a devastating report by the university, where Hwang conducted much of his research, concluded that he had fabricated the 2005 article published in Science. The university’s nine-member investigative panel said it could not find any of the 11 stem cell lines matched to patients, as Hwang reported in that research.
Journal reconsiders its practices
Science has said it would retract that May 2005 paper — and on Tuesday it said Hwang’s 2004 paper claiming the first cloned human embryo would be retracted as well. The journal's editors had been waiting to hear the university panel's findings before moving ahead with the retraction.
In a video statement, Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy said the editors as well as outside experts would review the journal's procedures for evaluating submitted research.
“They and we will be considering options for providing additional procedural safeguards,” Kennedy said. “These might include, for example, requiring all authors to detail their specific contributions to the project, along with concurrence with respect to the results and expressions of their confidence in all the work. We are implementing various improved methods for detecting image alteration, although it appears that those would have been unlikely to detect the problems that arose in this particular case.”
Ethical concerns about eggs
Hwang had also come under fire for using eggs in his studies donated by junior researchers on his team. He conceded in November that two subordinate scientists had donated eggs without his knowledge and that other women were paid to take fertility drugs to produce eggs for research.
Both practices are viewed as coercive and unethical in the West.
The panel said Tuesday that one of the two researchers who donated eggs said Hwang accompanied her to a clinic for the procedure. Hwang also received letters from female scientists on his team pledging to donate eggs, the panel said.
The concerns over the egg donations caused Hwang’s sole American collaborator, University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald Schatten, to end his 20-month partnership with Hwang’s team in November. He also asked Science to remove him as senior author of the May 2005 paper.
Disappointment from colleagues
Alan Trounson, a top stem cell researcher and expert in embryonic stem cells at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said what Hwang did left him “very, very disappointed.”
“I just don’t understand why a scientist would do something like that,” he said.
Hwang has not made any public appearances since last month when he said he would resign his faculty position, and his whereabouts are unknown.
Despite the scandal, Hwang has maintained he has the technology to clone stem cells and could reproduce his experiments. Last month, he filed a complaint with prosecutors alleging that some of his stem cells were maliciously switched by other researchers in his lab.
Impact on the field
Trounson said Hwang’s fabrications will have a negative impact on research but added the field remains promising. “I am very confident that embryonic stem cells will provide us with some very important new regenerative medicine strategy,” he said. “It’s just that we will have to wait a little longer.”
Research such as Hwang’s is off-limits in many U.S. labs because Washington restricts federal money for human embryonic stem cell experiments. Labs that depend on federal money cannot use it to create new embryonic cell lines as Hwang claimed he did.
A South Korean scientist said Hwang’s downfall could give new impetus for other laboratories to push forward with stem-cell development. It can “serve as an opportunity for other scientists to expedite research in the area,” said Park Se-pill, a stem cell scientist who heads the Maria Infertility Medical Institute in Seoul.
Simon Best, chairman of the London-based BioIndustry Association, said, “There remains a huge need for new and better treatments for degenerative diseases and this in no way diminishes the potential of stem-cell technology to provide these.”
Anger among Koreans
Ordinary people expressed anger with Hwang, who has been a role model in a society that places great emphasis on education and scholarship.
“My daughter got really disappointed to learn that Professor Hwang lied,” said Park Jae-hyung, 48, visiting Seoul with his 12-year-old daughter from the southern port city of Busan. “I think this is the result of Koreans’ hasty culture.”