S.Korean panel deals knockout blow to stem cell claim
By Jon Herskovitz and Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) – A South Korean panel dealt a devastating blow to discredited scientist Hwang Woo-suk on Thursday, concluding his once-celebrated team provided no data to prove a claim they had produced tailored embryonic stem cells.
The findings deepened the disgrace of a man once heralded as a national hero for his pioneering work on stem cell and cloning research, who now faces possible criminal charges.
The panel will also review Hwang’s 2004 paper on creating the first cloned human embryos for research and a claim he produced the world’s first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy.
Hwang did receive a bit of good news when a DNA lab in Seoul, which is not part of the panel’s investigation, said its own tests indicated that Snuppy was an actual clone.
But that was the only upbeat news in an otherwise somber day for the scientist.
"It is the panel’s judgment that Professor Hwang’s team does not have the scientific data to prove that they (patient-specific stem cells) were made," said Roe Jung-hye, chief of Seoul National University’s research office.
The same investigation panel said last week that a 2005 paper produced by Hwang’s team contained data that was deliberately fabricated and had undermined the fundamentals of science.
It said the team may have produced only two stem cell lines, not 11 as the authors of the landmark paper had claimed.
Roe told reporters the final two lines, which could have proved the fundamental findings of Hwang’s team, were not produced in Hwang’s lab but at a Seoul hospital.
"The findings of three labs showed the number two and number three stem cell lines that needed confirmation with regard to the 2005 paper did not match with patient tissue cells and were found to be fertilized-egg stem cells of MizMedi Hospital," Roe said.
The news sent biotech shares lower on the Seoul bourse.
The panel has asked three laboratories to conduct DNA tests on cells that were part of work by Hwang’s team to see if they were stem cell lines with DNA that matches that of the donors.
Hwang has been in seclusion for almost a week and did not offer any comment to the media, but a key member of his team apologized on Thursday in a letter to a local radio program.
"I offer my sincere apology to patients and their families who had had hopes for a cure and supported our team’s study," said Ahn Curie in her letter sent to Peace Broadcasting Center and posted on the station’s Web site.
"I had believed the stem cells existed until recently," said Ahn, adding her role had been limited to exploring possible use of the cells but had nothing to do with creating them.
Experts say the stem cell case is fast developing into one of the biggest scientific frauds in recent history: the next questions will be how Hwang’s team was able to pull it off and exactly how many people were involved.
An official with the Seoul prosecutors’ office said a criminal investigation will probably be launched after the university panel reaches a final conclusion in January.
"We will be looking into a number of complaints brought to us, including the question of whether there was a switch," the official said, referring to Hwang’s claim that someone had removed his stem cells and replaced them with fertilized cells.
Hwang resigned from the university last week and apologized. But he has insisted that patient-tailored embryonic stem cells are South Korean technology and that would be confirmed.
Hwang’s work had been touted as having fulfilled a basic promise of embryonic stem cell studies, that one day genetically matched tissues could be transplanted in a patient to cure diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Some South Koreans who had reacted with shock, shame and sadness to the initial revelations of fraud said after hearing the latest news that Hwang should face harsh penalties.
"He should be severely punished and one of the first things that should be done is for him to step away from educating students," said Jin Jong-hwa, an office worker in Seoul.
Laurie Zoloth, a bioethics professor at Northwestern University near Chicago, said the impact of Thursday’s findings would leave a lasting mark on scientific research.
"It seems clearly to have been a deliberate fabrication from the very beginning," she said. "It is a sad day for science."
(With additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo, Kim Yeon-hee and Rhee So-eui)