December 23, 2005

Scientist fabricated stem-cell data: panel

By Jon Herskovitz and Kim Yeon-hee

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korea's most famous scientist quit under a cloud on Friday and could face prosecution after investigators said results in a landmark 2005 paper on producing tailored embryonic stem cells were intentionally fabricated.

A panel from Seoul National University has been examining the work of Hwang Woo-suk, hitherto regarded in South Korea as a hero for bringing the country to the forefront of stem-cell and cloning studies -- and the world the first cloned dog.

His reputation lay ruined on Friday, and many in the country felt acutely embarrassed. The nine-member panel said in a statement the fabrication was "major misconduct that undermines the fundamentals of science."

It had launched the investigation after some of Hwang's former collaborators said key findings in their paper were false.

"Based on these findings, the data in 2005 was intentionally fabricated, not an accidental error," said Roe Jung-hye, the chief of Seoul National University's research office, at a televised news conference.

"It is difficult for Professor Hwang not to avoid taking major responsibility," Roe said, adding that the scale of the researcher's direct involvement was not yet clear. Hwang soon responded, but gave no immediate explanation.

"I am stepping down as a professor at Seoul National University to apologize for causing such big shocks and disappointment," he said in brief televised comments. "But I'd like to repeat patient-tailored embryonic stem cells are South Korean technology. All of you will confirm it."

Shares in South Korean biotechnology firms did not react significantly to the panel's findings, and a Finance Ministry official said there was unlikely to be an impact on the sovereign ratings of the country, Asia's fourth-largest economy.

Prosecutors said they would question Hwang when the panel issued a final report. Officials have not said when that will be.

Renowned in science circles for his stem-cell work, Hwang is best known to others for leading the team that created the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound called Snuppy.

"It is a heartbreaking turn for science and Korea. Without trust, we just cannot imagine science," said Laurie Zoloth, a specialist in bioethics for Northwestern University, by telephone. "This is utterly unacceptable."


Roe said the panel would now also investigate the dog cloning and a 2004 academic paper on cloning the first human embryos for research that has also fallen under suspicion.

The panel found there were only two stem cell lines in the paper published in May 2005 in the U.S. periodical Science, not 11 as the authors had said.

Of the other nine stem cell lines, four clusters died because of a contamination accident in January 2005 and cannot be verified as tailor-made stem cells.

There was no record to prove another two clusters of cells were stem cell lines. The other three were found to be colonies of cells but were not yet shown to be stem cell lines when the paper was submitted.

The panel has not concluded whether the key findings of the paper are valid or not -- in other words, whether the team produced tailor-made embryonic stem cells.

They will conduct further testing, including DNA fingerprinting, to determine whether the basic findings of the paper are true, Roe said.

The investigation committee interviewed Hwang and several dozen of his team members as part of its probe. Roe said Hwang and his team members had admitted to some irregularities.

Earlier this week, the panel started DNA testing on cells provided by Hwang that he says were part of his landmark paper on producing tailor-made embryonic stem cells.

The paper on tailor-made embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to develop into any type of human tissue, was hailed in the scientific community because such a discovery could one day lead to genetically matched tissue being generated to treat diseases such as Parkinson's and severe spinal cord injuries.

Hwang has already asked the U.S. journal Science, which published the May 2005 paper, to withdraw the work because of the storm of controversy it had generated.

Embryonic stem cells are taken from days-old embryos called blastocysts and have the potential to produce any kind of cell or tissue in the human body.

They are controversial because some people consider human embryonic stem cell research tantamount to destroying human life.

"This will have a profound impact on stem-cell research," Zoloth said of the panel's findings. "The opponents of the research will feel themselves to be vindicated."