Hwang saga conjures up more queries (Update and scenarios)

January 22, 2006

The saga of Hwang Woo-suk, the disgraced geneticist whose signature work has been called fraudulent by his university, continued to spin off in unexpected directions last week as law enforcement officials used their search and seizure authority to dig out details of the complicated story. Because Dr. Hwang was seen as a popular hero (likened to a ¡°rock star¡± by one observer), a messiah heralding Korea¡¯s economic salvation in biotechnology businesses as well as a pioneering researcher, it is difficult so far to assemble the leaks, accusations and facts into a completely coherent tale.
On Jan. 10, Seoul National University¡¯s investigation panel released its final report, calling two articles written by Dr. Hwang and colleagues and published by the U.S. journal Science fraudulent. That was the signal for prosecutors to move in with their police powers to raid homes and offices, cart away computers and examine e-mail accounts. The many leaks that have emerged from those various investigations have been in turn intriguing, perplexing and probably overblown.
The university panel said that Dr. Hwang¡¯s claim to have cloned stem cells in a 2004 Science article was false; the stem cell DNA and the DNA of the original donor did not match, and DNA fingerprints that showed a match were forged. The panel did not attempt, however, to say who manipulated the data, how or why.
Last week, prosecutors suggested that a government body, the National Institute of Science and Technology, might have played a role in the fabricated fingerprint data.
At that point, university panel members said that they too, had had similar suspicions about the national institute and also about MizMedi Hospital, a fertility clinic run by one of Dr. Hwang¡¯s research collaborators, Roh Sung-il. Both groups had conducted DNA analyses in 2003 for the article that appeared the following year. University investigators said two researchers that had arranged for the DNA testing had both testified that the fingerprints they received from the institute showed perfect matches between the original cells and the purported clones. They did not look into any discrepancies too deeply, they said, because they had no authority to widen their search that far. They removed references to the problems from their final report but alerted prosecutors to the problem.
What prosecutors found seems too unlikely to be coincidence or chance, but also too tenuous to support accusations of intent to deceive. In the entire matter, it is still unclear what was correct, what was wishful thinking and what was out-and-out fraud.

Swirling Cloud 1. Who Fiddled with the DNA?
A major outstanding question is whether the National Institute of Science and Technology gave inaccurate DNA fingerprinting data to Dr. Hwang¡¯s laboratory, and if so, why. Apparently, Dr. Hwang¡¯s team sent samples of a stem cell line it called No.1 on three occasions in 2003 to the National Institute of Science and Technology for DNA fingerprinting analysis. MizMedi Hospital sent samples of the same line to the institute on two more occasions in 2004. On all five occasions, the institute reported that the cells¡¯ DNA matched that of a single woman. Later tests by the Seoul National University investigating panel, however, showed that the DNA was not of that woman but another. That was one of the bases for declaring the 2004 article fraudulent.
Prosecutors said they naturally looked closely at the person responsible for the DNA testing at the institute, Lee Yang-han. He attended Hanyang University at the same time Yoon Hyun-soo was studying there, and the two were friends. Dr. Yoon was a co-author of the 2004 cloning article. Because shared school ties create bonds for Koreans far beyond anything common in Western cultures, prosecutors are digging deeper to see if there was any evidence of collusion to cook the research data. They said it appeared that Dr. Yoon had asked Dr. Lee to do the DNA testing as a personal favor, rather than going through the institute¡¯s formal procedures.
The investigators are also looking at the two researchers who were in charge of sending the cell samples for testing and reporting the results to Dr. Hwang¡¯s team. Kim Sun-jong and Park Jong-hyuk were both graduates of Hanyang University and had studied under Dr. Yoon. Both Mr. Kim and Mr. Park are now researchers at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States under Gerald Schatten, once a warm colleague of Dr. Hwang. Dr. Schatten distanced himself from Dr. Hwang last October, however, when he said he had been given evidence of unethical practices in donations of the human ova used in the research. He later distanced himself from his role as senior author of the 2005 paper.
Kim Sun-jong, before moving to Pittsburgh, was a researcher at MizMedi Hospital and at Seoul National University on the stem cell project.

Swirling Cloud 2. Researcher gets wanderlust.
On Thursday, prosecutors said that they had examined e-mail accounts belonging to Kim Sun-jong in 2004, and that he had sent applications to a large number of U.S. colleges for training programs. One prosecutor said, ¡°At the time Mr. Kim should have been very busy preparing the 2005 article, and yet he was sending applications to foreign schools, which meant he had the intention to leave the lab.¡± Another added, ¡°If we find out why Mr. Kim was trying to go abroad when he was in the process of doing stem cell studies, it may point to the circumstances that led to the fabrication of the article.¡±
Those comments could be dismissed as an excess of prosecutorial zeal, perhaps, but the investigators added that while examining documents at MizMedi Hospital, they found almost no data related to the stem cell studies. Staff members there testified that Mr. Kim was responsible for controlling that data, and that he had transferred all of it to his personal laptop computer and deleted the original files before he went to the United States last August.

Swirling Cloud 3. Enemies inside the gates?
On Friday, prosecutors said they discovered that a number of files had been deleted from the laptop computer of Kwon Dae-gi, the researcher at Seoul National University who led stem cell studies there.
They said that they had recovered 302 of 381 files that had been erased just before the Seoul National University panel began its investigation. They said the deleted files were laboratory notes, about 400 pages of records of procedures and experimental results. They were all written after May 2005. Some of the deleted files were not immediately recoverable, however; prosecutors said they believed those files contained data on experiments that supported the 2004 and 2005 journal articles.
That finding relates to a charge by the university investigation panel that there was no existing laboratory data to support claims by Dr. Hwang¡¯s team that it had successfully established a stem cell line. Could those deleted files be the data that would support Dr. Hwang¡¯s claims? Why were they deleted just before the university began its investigation? Prosecutors want to know, because what they say they know now is tantalizing but certainly not definitive.

Where they stand.
The rationale for the investigation by the Seoul Central District Prosecutors Office is that public funds were used in the research and may have been misappropriated. The prosecutorial team finished what it called its ¡°root¡± investigation of 40 researchers on Friday. Beginning today, they will summon others for questioning, starting with those whom they believe had only minor roles if any. They said that key figures such as Kwon Dae-gi, Kim Sun-jong, and Park Jong-hyuk would be called in after the Lunar New Year holiday.

by Wohn Dong-hee

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