Top Scientist Accused of Faking Stem Cell Findings

Times Staff Writers

South Korean scientist Hwang Woo Suk, who rose to international prominence for his breakthrough research creating the first embryonic stem cells tailored to individual patients, was accused by collaborators Thursday of fabricating results in his landmark study.

Dr. Roh Sung Il, the chairman of Seoul’s MizMedi Hospital, told South Korea’s KBS television that Hwang had admitted to him that some of the published research was faked.

Hwang responded today by insisting that his results were real. However, the beleaguered researcher told a packed auditorium that the stem cells described in his study were no longer available because they had been contaminated and died.


He apologized to the nation and his fellow researchers for the controversy surrounding his work and pledged to authenticate his results by creating new stem cells lines within two weeks.

In the meantime, Hwang said, he asked the journal Science, which published his research in May, to retract his 11-page study because it was so tarnished.

But Hwang’s statements seemed to ensure that the uncertainty would continue.

“If it’s true, it’s going to go down as probably the biggest scandal in science,” said Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, who spent this summer in Hwang’s lab.

The accusations may be a setback for those who had hoped Hwang’s work would lead to cures for patients suffering from spinal cord injuries, strokes and such diseases as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and diabetes.

It is also considered an embarrassment to South Korea, where Hwang is regarded as a national hero for propelling the country to the forefront of stem cell research.

Hwang’s paper purported to show the creation of 11 human embryo clones using DNA from injured or sick patients.

According to the paper, the embryos were used to create individualized stem cell lines -- an achievement that offered the possibility of creating personalized stem cell therapies for anyone.

Scientists around the world flocked to Hwang’s laboratory at Seoul National University.

The South Korean government agreed to bankroll his research to the tune of millions of dollars, and thousands of women volunteered to contribute to Hwang’s research by donating their eggs.

But on Thursday night, Lee Wang Jae, the university’s associate dean for research affairs, told the South Korean media that nine of the 11 cell lines did not exist and that the validity of the other two was in doubt.

“We can declare today a day of national infamy,” Lee said, according to the Korea Times.

Hwang has been hospitalized for stress over much of the last week. He returned to his laboratory this morning to meet with colleagues before defending his work to the public.

“There have been serious mistakes, but what is for sure is that our research team has produced a stem cell,” he said at the news conference, projecting confidence that his name would be cleared.

Some people in the auditorium had tears in their eyes as Hwang spoke. Supporters in wheelchairs listened outside the door.

Hwang, 53, rose to prominence in February 2004, when he published a paper describing the creation of the first cloned human embryo.

The delicate procedure involves squeezing the genetic material out of a human egg and replacing it with DNA from an adult cell.

Then the egg is treated with a chemical and bathed in nutrients to encourage it to divide as if it were fertilized naturally. After several days, the embryo is destroyed to harvest stem cells, which are prized for their ability to become any type of cell in the body.

That achievement paved the way for the study in May, which appeared to show that it was possible to clone embryos from patients who suffered from ailments that potentially could be treated with stem cell therapies.

None of the work has been replicated by other researchers, though many have been trying.

Hwang previously attributed his success to the Korean custom of using metal chopsticks, which fosters the manual dexterity needed to carry out the delicate experiments. Hwang is also well-known for rising at 5 a.m. and keeping his lab running seven days a week.

In another scientific coup, his research team in August unveiled the first cloned dog, a frisky Afghan hound puppy. The animal -- named Snuppy, for Seoul National University puppy -- was featured last month on the cover of Time Magazine as the 2005 Invention of the Year.

None of the current criticism involves Hwang’s dog-cloning work.

Accusations of misconduct first surfaced last month, when Hwang’s American collaborator, University of Pittsburgh biomedical researcher Gerald Schatten, raised ethics questions about the procurement of eggs used in the initial research.

Hwang later acknowledged that one of his associates paid women $1,400 each to provide eggs and that other eggs were donated by women who worked in his lab. Though the actions weren’t illegal, they go against international norms of ethics.

After those problems emerged, Hwang resigned as head of the World Stem Cell Hub, which he launched in October to produce customized stem cells for other researchers.

The allegations became more serious this month. South Korean scientists studied photos of the 11 stem cell colonies in the May study and determined that they all depicted the same group of cells.

Hwang’s explanation was that the photos were mixed up prior to being published by Science. A junior researcher in Hwang’s lab told South Korea’s MBC television that the photographs were intentionally doctored.

“I just did what he told me,” the visibly nervous researcher said in a long-anticipated documentary that aired on the network Thursday night.

The researcher, who was identified only as “Kim,” said he took multiple photographs of a single stem cell line from different angles to make it appear “that there were more than there really were.”

Hwang responded that he asked the researcher to “take many photographs so we could select the best one, but that is not fabricating.”

Scientists have also questioned the authenticity of DNA fingerprints designed to show that the embryonic stem cell lines matched their genetic donors.

“When you blow them up, supposedly the pattern in the background

Bradford said Thursday that Science was awaiting the results of investigations at Seoul National University and the University of Pittsburgh.

Officials from Seoul National said this morning that they were stepping up their investigation in light of the new accusations. An investigative panel is to be convened to determine “who did what, where, when and why,” said university research head Roe Jung Hye.

The high level of scrutiny is not unusual for a study of such scientific import, researchers said. In a letter sent to Science on Tuesday, Scottish scientist Ian Wilmut said he was accused of fraud after revealing the cloned sheep Dolly in 1998.

That controversy subsided after independent researchers studied the data. Wilmut suggested Hwang follow the same course.

“We encourage Hwang’s laboratory to cooperate with us to perform an independent test of his cell lines,” said the letter, which was signed by seven scientists.

Even if it turns out that Hwang faked his results, advocates for stem cell research said they remained convinced stem cells from cloned embryos would one day help them study diseases and develop cures.

“I think it’s a matter of time and technology,” said Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Institute for Stem Cell and Tissue Biology at UC San Francisco.

Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, added: “The technology works in animals, and if Dr. Hwang turns out not to be the first to create lines from humans, someone else will be.”

Some research advocates suggested that the controversy would invigorate American scientists, who had seen their early lead in stem cell research slip away to other countries.

Michael West, president and chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology Inc. in Worcester, Mass., said his company would redouble its research efforts now that there might be a fresh opportunity to be the first to create individualized embryonic stem cells.

“This is a chance for the U.S. to recapture the lead in this field,” he said.

The scandal may also provide ammunition to those who oppose embryonic stem cell research because it involves the destruction of potential human life.

“They will point to this and say, ‘Look at who we’re dealing with here,’ ” Hyun, the bioethicist, said. “Justified or not, it gives opponents of stem cell research a very easy target.”