December 22, 2005

High-Stakes S.Korea Stem Cell Scandal Shakes Science

By Jon Herskovitz

SEOUL -- The stakes are so high in South Korea's stem-cell scandal that all the facts should be laid out before judgment is passed, but even now experts say the case could taint the country's image in high-tech research.

A South Korean university is examining the work of renowned stem-cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk, who faces charges from collaborators that their landmark 2005 paper on producing tailored embryonic stem cells was fundamentally flawed.

The nine-member investigation panel at Seoul National University, where Hwang has his laboratory, said it would announce interim results of the investigation on Friday.

Hwang has defended his findings and said he had proof his team had made patient-tailored embryonic stem cells.

If the allegations prove true, the scandal could become one of the largest scientific frauds in recent history and give a black eye to South Korea, which has made Hwang a hero for bringing it to the forefront of stem cell and cloning research.

The probe team is testing the DNA of stem cells provided by Hwang. The results are being checked at three different laboratories. It has questioned Hwang and dozens of his team, seized his computer and sealed off parts of his laboratory.

"We should wait for the investigations to inform us of what really happened. Not only important science, but scientific careers are at stake," said Irving Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

It was too soon to judge how the controversy surrounding Hwang would affect stem cell and cloning studies, hotly contested fields because of the ways the research touches on the formation of human life, Weissman said.

Scientists did not typically extend findings in one paper to an entire field of research, he said in remarks sent by e-mail.

"But if you ask me whether this report will be used by opponents of stem cell research to condemn the field, I would say absolutely -- and they have already started."


Laurie Zoloth, a specialist in bioethics at Northwestern University, also said people should wait for all the data to collected, analyzed and confirmed.

She said there were two possible narratives in the Hwang saga. One involved the possibility of fraud and the other about cutting too many corners.

"It could be a series of mistakes and blunders and bad lab practices, and ethical violations, which could be considerable. That is one narrative and the lessons from that are much different from those of utter fraud," she said by telephone.

The paper on tailor-made embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to develop into any type of human tissue or cell, was hailed because it could one day lead to genetically matched tissue being generated to treat diseases such as Parkinson's.

Embryonic stem cells are taken from days-old embryos called blastocysts. They are controversial because some consider human embryonic stem cell research tantamount to destroying human life.

There have been calls to investigate other landmark work by Hwang's team, such as its 2004 paper on cloning the first human embryos for research and the 2005 announcement that Hwang's team had produced the world's first cloned dog.

"It is Korean science that has been hurt most, because the international scientific community will from now on take any paper written by a Korean scientist with a hefty pinch of salt," the South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo wrote in a recent editorial.

Support for Hwang is still high in South Korea, but it is down from the 90 percent tallied in late November when the country backed him after he said there had been ethical lapses in human egg procurement for his research.

Just two months ago, President Roh Moo-hyun opened a World Stem Cell Hub center, billed as a project to put the country at forefront of the field.

Investors have seen the case spread to financial markets. When a South Korean collaborator charged last week that key parts of the team's works were false, biotech shares in Seoul fell the next day and overall market sentiment was soured.

"This case affects biotechnology, not only in South Korea but also in the U.S. because of the joint research," said Kim Jae-eun an economist at SK Securities in Seoul.

"This case is only a warning, not a red card."

(With additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo)