Researcher admits deception in statements on egg donors
Korea’s star stem cell researcher, Hwang Woo-suk, admitted yesterday that he had lied when he said he knew nothing about the use of human ova donated by researchers working for him.
At a press conference at Seoul National University, the usually proud and enthusiastic professor read his statement slowly and painfully, a serenade of clicking camera shutters greeting his every grimace or wince.
“I am so ashamed. I will not attempt to justify what I did,” the ashen-faced scientist said, his eyes downcast.
Dr. Hwang explained in detail that two women on his research staff were among 16 whose ova were used in a cloning procedure that allowed stem cells to be extracted. He said he was not aware of those donations until the Tokyo correspondent for Nature magazine called him in May 2004 to ask him about the matter.
“During our research in 2002 and 2003, a junior researcher came to me privately and said she wanted to provide her own eggs because we were short of them, but I refused on three occasions,” he said. “Another researcher also approached me with the same proposal, but I turned her down as well.”
He said when he received the call from the science journal, he thought of the two women and asked if they had donated eggs. They told him they had, he continued. “But they begged me not to publicize the fact in the local media because egg donations is a very sensitive matter for a woman. Now that I reflect on it, I regret that I didn’t come out with the truth,” he said.
Dr. Hwang’s sole source of supply for the human eggs used in his research was Roh Sung-il, the head of the fertility clinic MizMedi Hospital. He said the two researchers had provided the eggs through the hospital. Referring to accusations, now proven correct, that the eggs ultimately had been purchased from donors, he said he was suspicious about whether they had been freely donated because there were so many of them.
“I had doubts, but Dr. Roh assured me that the eggs were ‘fine’ and told me in his blunt way that I should focus my efforts on research. I only found out that some of those eggs had been paid for when Dr. Roh called me a few days ago and told me that he had done so,” Dr. Hwang said. “My stem cell research is broken down into three parts ― obtaining the eggs, extracting the stem cells from those eggs, and then cultivating the cells. I was in charge of the second phase, while Dr. Roh was responsible for the other two, which is why we agreed to share any future patent rights. We had our own roles and as a physician, Dr. Roh did not wish to reveal the identities of the egg donors,” he said.
His statement jibed with that of Dr. Roh two days earlier, when the clinic operator said he alone was responsible for the payments for the eggs.
Dr. Hwang apologized for the controversy and said he would take full responsibility for his actions, as an initial step by resigning as the director of the World Stem Cell Hub and posts in several government and private groups. The hub was launched with great fanfare and global media attention last month in Seoul to assist researchers who believe stem cells will ultimately provide cures for several serious and untreatable human disorders.
“Our research is ground-breaking. It feels like walking across a snowy field and being the first to make footprints. During that process, we lacked insight into the legal and ethical aspects of the research. I believe scientific research should take place within the boundaries of ethics, but it is true that sometimes science moves faster than ethical regulations. If I were to do the same research now, there would be no mistakes, but at the time, I was blinded by my work and accomplishments,” he said.
Near the end of his press conference, Dr. Hwang threw himself on the mercy of Koreans, saying he hoped his short-sightedness would not dim the popular support here for scientific research ― and that government support would continue to flow to researchers.
“Studies to treat patients with incurable diseases must continue. You may target your wrath on me, but I am worried that my inexperience will affect the research of my juniors,” he said. “Korea is the only country that has succeeded in cloning customized stem cells, and this has been a hard lesson learned in how we must be cool-headed and discreet to meet global standards.”
Separately, the Health Ministry announced the findings of the Institutional Review Board at Seoul National University’s veterinary college, which conducted an investigation of the controversy. The ministry quoted the board as having concluded that the payments for some egg donations were legal even under Korea’s current bioethics laws, citing the difference between fees and payments for expenses and drawing parallels with practices in other countries where trade in human eggs is illegal. It also concluded that MizMedi Hospital received consent statements from the women. But even if that assertion of legality were challenged, the board said, the payments were made before legislation barring them went into effect.
It is still not clear why the Seoul National University allowed the veterinary school body to conduct an ethical investigation involving human cells. A university spokesman said the administration had no part in the investigation, and said he did not know if other departments at the university had ethics panels. A spokesman at Seoul National University Hospital said it did have an ethics panel, but was not asked to involve itself in the controversy.
The Korean Bioethics Association hastily convened a meeting yesterday to discuss the ethical clouds hovering over Dr. Hwang. A statement after the meeting said a third party with global credibility should examine the matter to advise on the ethical questions.
Hwang Sang-ik, head of the association and a professor at Seoul National University’s medical college, said that it would take more than Dr. Hwang’s explanation or that of an organization affiliated with his research (the review board) to recover his credibility. “If Dr. Hwang had been frank last year when questions regarding the egg source first surfaced, the issue wouldn’t have become as complicated as it is now,” he added.
Somewhat ironically, the U.S. magazine Scientific American selected Dr. Hwang as “research leader of the year” in its December issue, which was on newsstands yesterday.
by Wohn Dong-hee for Joongang Daily