Another of two landmark research papers by Hwang Woo-suk, once Korea¡¯s genetic engineering hero, and his coworkers contained deliberately fabricated data, an investigative panel with Seoul National University said yesterday, adding there was no evidence at this point to prove the researchers had created cloned human embryonic stem cells.
The panel also said that crucial ethical breaches were committed in acquiring and using human eggs for the research and that a far larger number of eggs were used than cited in the research paper.
However, in the only positive note for Dr. Hwang, a veterinary professor with Seoul National University, and his researchers, a dog they claimed to have cloned was the genuine article, the panel said.
In a 2004 paper for the U.S. journal Science, the team claimed to have established the first human embryonic stem cell line from a cloned blastocyst, an early stage embryo comprising about 100 cells. In a 2005 paper for the same publication, the group of Korean and American researchers claimed they had created patient-specific embryonic stem cell lines by using somatic cells, enhancing the effectiveness of embryonic stem cell cloning. The panel announced last month that significant parts of data used in that report were deliberately fabricated.
Dr. Hwang did not make a public statement but Lee Geon-haeng, his attorney, said the scientist does not accept the investigation panel¡¯s conclusion that his 2004 paper was also a fake.
The Seoul National University Investigation Committee released its final report on allegations regarding Dr. Hwang¡¯s research yesterday morning, asking the prosecution to carry out a further probe on the matter. The panel said its scope of investigation only dealt with the scientific verification of Dr. Hwang¡¯s research.
¡°Not all the wrongdoing of all the individuals associated with fabricated publications can be revealed by this committee,¡± said Chung Myung-hee, head of the eight-member panel, ¡°However, that the publications are fabricated alone mandates a severe penalty by academia.¡±
In its report, the panel said no cloned embryonic stem cell line exists at the moment, despite Dr. Hwang¡¯s team¡¯s claims in the 2004 and 2005 papers. The panel already said last month in an interim report that there was no evidence that the researchers created 11 patient-specific stem cells, as claimed in the 2005 paper.
Yesterday¡¯s announcement practically rang the death knell for Dr. Hwang¡¯s stem cell claims. The panel said it investigated the 2004 paper after various doubts were raised about photographs and DNA fingerprint data presented in the article. While verifying information in the paper, the committee was unable to find any evidence to support the creation of the reported first cloned human embryonic stem cell.
Rather, the panel said, the stem cell line cited in the 2004 paper was highly likely a product of parthenogenesis initiated by the fusion of a non-enucleated egg and a nearby polar body, a rare form of human reproduction.
In the report, the panel also assessed the propriety of procedures in obtaining and using human ova for the research. ¡°The exact accounting for the number of eggs used for each Science article is impossible as the initiation date for each project is uncertain and laboratory recording is not thorough,¡± the panel said. ¡°However, while the 2005 article claims to have used 185 eggs, laboratory notes indicated that at least 273 eggs have been used.¡±
From November 2002 to November 2005, a total of 2,061 eggs from 129 females were provided to Dr. Hwang¡¯s team, the panel said. Despite Dr. Hwang¡¯s earlier claims that he had been unaware of the egg donation by his lab members, a graduate student informed the committee that Dr. Hwang had approved her doing so. Dr. Hwang even accompanied the student to the hospital himself in 2003, the panel said.
Dr. Hwang¡¯s team also sought consent for voluntary egg donations from his female students, as eight current and former lab members testified, the panel said.
In its conclusion, the panel provided an evaluation on the technical expertise of Dr. Hwang¡¯s team. The panel acknowledged that the team has internationally competitive expertise in performing nuclear transfer using eggs from animals. Other expertise of the team had been exaggerated, the panel evaluated.
The panel also dismissed Dr. Hwang¡¯s earlier claims that his stem cell lines were switched by a former member of his laboratory, Kim Sun-jong. Last month, Dr. Hwang asked the Seoul prosecution to investigate the young scientist, accusing Mr. Kim of seriously damaging his project.
The investigation committee, however, said, ¡°even the scenario based on switching cell lines cannot explain the parthenogenetically derived cell line and cannot undo the fabrication of DNA fingerprinting data.¡±
Despite the ¡°scandalous case¡± of Dr. Hwang, the nation¡¯s scientific community has learned a valuable lesson, the panel said. ¡°The young scientists who courageously pointed out the fallacy and precipitated the initiation of this investigation are our hope for the future.¡±
The authenticity of Dr. Hwang¡¯s achievements was first questioned by an MBC investigative team and BRIC, an Internet community of young Korean scientists, prompting the panel to expand its scope of investigations into his overall work.
After the panel announced its result, Park Ky-young, the presidential advisor on science, expressed her intention to resign. The Blue House spokesman Kim Man-soo said President Roh Moo-hyun will decide whether to accept her resignation or not. Ms. Park, named as a co-author of Dr. Hwang¡¯s 2004 paper, has largely supported his stem cell research.
As already declared, the prosecution will now investigate a series of allegations associated with Dr. Hwang¡¯s data fabrications. The prosecution earlier said it would investigate the case after Seoul National University completed its probe.
As of now, 11 key figures of Dr. Hwang¡¯s research team, including Roh Sung-il, Lee Byung-cheon, Kang Sung-keun, Kim Sun-jong and Kwon Dae-gi, have been barred from leaving the country.
The prosecution is expected to investigate whether any of the government¡¯s 62.3 billion won ($63.4 million) funding was misappropriated by Dr. Hwang¡¯s team. Prosecutors will also investigate Dr. Hwang¡¯s claim that his stem cells were switched, despite the university panel having dismissed that accusation.
Notes and records of 50 hours of testimony were given to the prosecution by the panel yesterday. Prosecutors are also expected to investigate whether Dr. Hwang¡¯s team breached the nation¡¯s bioethics laws while gathering eggs.
The Ministry of Science and Technology said it will thoroughly review the panel¡¯s report to come up with follow-up measures. The Health and Welfare Ministry also said it will investigate ethics breaches in ova donations.
Prime Minister Lee Hae-chan will hold an urgent government meeting today to discuss Dr. Hwang¡¯s fall.
Seoul National University also said it will make a statement today apologizing for its faculties¡¯ misconduct and to promise no recurrence of a similar incident. Dr. Hwang tried to resign from his post as a professor, but the university rejected his resignation, calling instead for a disciplinary session.
Hwang¡¯s fall from grace
Feb. 2004 | Hwang Woo-suk published a paper in Science on the creation of the first cloned human embryonic stem cell.
May 2004 | Nature challenged the ethics of Dr. Hwang¡¯s research for alleged use of researchers¡¯ eggs.
May 2005 | Dr. Hwang¡¯s team published a paper in Science on the creation of patient-specific cloned embryonic stem cells.
Aug. 3, 2005 | Dr. Hwang¡¯s team introduced the first cloned dog, Snuppy.
Oct. 19, 2005 | The World Stem Cell Hub opened at Seoul National University Hospital.
Nov. 13, 2005 | Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh ended his research partnership with Dr. Hwang.
Nov. 22, 2005 | Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation¡¯s PD Notebook aired the allegation that Dr. Hwang used unethically obtained eggs for his research.
Nov. 24, 2005 | Dr. Hwang publicly admitted obtaining ova unethically.
Dec. 5, 2005 | A young Korean scientists¡¯ Internet community, BRIC, questioned the authenticity of Dr. Hwang¡¯s 2005 Science paper, alleging falsified photos and data.
Dec. 11, 2005 | The Seoul National University Investigation Committee began verification of Dr. Hwang¡¯s research at the scientist¡¯s own request.
Dec. 15, 2005 | Roh Sung-il of MizMedi Hospital, a former colleague of Dr. Hwang, publicly claimed that Dr. Hwang¡¯s team had no stem cell lines.
Dec. 16, 2005 | Dr. Hwang claimed he had created stem cells but they were destroyed by accidental contamination. He alleged his research cell lines had been replaced by someone. Dr. Roh claimed that Dr. Hwang¡¯s team fabricated data for the research papers.
Dec. 22, 2005 | Dr. Hwang asked the prosecution to launch an investigation on the alleged replacement of his stem cells.
Dec. 23, 2005 | The Seoul National University panel announced in an interim report that Dr. Hwang¡¯s 2005 paper contained intentionally fabricated data.
Jan. 10, 2006 | The Seoul National University panel announced that Dr. Hwang¡¯s 2004 and 2005 papers both contained fabricated data. The panel said Dr. Hwang¡¯s cloned dog, Snuppy, was authentic.
by Ser Myo-ja