December 30, 2005
Experts sort pieces of South Korean stem-cell fraud
By Jon Herskovitz
SEOUL (Reuters) - Fame, heaps of government cash and an
idea to expand the horizons of science may have contributed to
the large-scale fraud at a Seoul laboratory that has shocked
the academic world and many South Koreans, experts said on
discredited scientist Hwang Woo-suk on Thursday, concluding
that his once-celebrated team had provided no data to prove
they had produced tailored embryonic stem cells.
Their 2005 paper on producing such stem cells was one of
the most acclaimed scientific works of the year. It helped
solidify Hwang's status as national hero at home and gave hope
to many around the world with debilitating illnesses.
A day after the panel at Seoul National University said
there was no data to support the key claims made in the 2005
paper, South Koreans and the scientific community were
wondering how deep the fraud ran, who was responsible and why
Hwang has been in seclusion for a week and has not spoken
in public since saying last Friday, during a public apology,
that patient-specific embryonic stem cells were South Korean
technology and would be proved.
Chung Hyung-min, director of the Stem Cell Therapy Research
Institute at Pochon CHA University said researchers, including
him, were kept in the dark about the work of Hwang's team.
"He had clearly made the government understand that
security was essential to prevent any leak of information on
his research," Chung said by telephone.
Chung said that, in the highly competitive field of
stem-cell science, it may be difficult for South Korean
scientists to regain their reputation.
GOVERNMENT SUPPORT, SCIENTIFIC GLORY
"The government will also have to revamp its research
funding system, which is now biased toward cloning," the South
Korean newspaper JoongAng Daily said in an editorial on Friday.
Experts said the bulk of the blame lay at the feet of
Hwang's team, but they also noted the government had placed
hefty bets that Hwang's research would succeed and his
accomplishments would put South Korea in a positive light.
The South Korean government spent tens of millions of
dollars to fund Hwang's research and used him in promotional
material as a symbol of the country's advances in cutting-edge
Two months ago, President Roh Moo-hyun opened a World Stem
Cell Hub billed as a project to put the country at the
forefront of the field.
Hwang's papers were viewed by scientists around the world,
and numerous people visited his lab. Yet, despite the exposure,
the scientific community failed to pick up on the fraud.
Experts said one reason might be that the basic premise of
Hwang's research made sense, and that might have led to less
scrutiny than his work deserved. Hwang's team said it used a
process for cloning human embryos that had been used already to
clone sheep, mice, pigs and other animals.
"The technical challenges were solved in theory but not in
practice," said Laurie Zoloth, a bioethics professor at
Northwestern University, located in the Chicago area. She added
that it would have been easy to test the team's claims.
"At the end of the day, this was an extraordinary failure
on so many levels," Zoloth said.
Some analysts have also said the rush to be first in a
highly competitive field may have caused many people to cut
corners in a society that is still rigidly hierarchical,
meaning that juniors are often reluctant to speak out.
No one can say for sure now how the team thought they could
get away with fraud or the exact amount of pressure they were
under to produce their work.
But some said it was unsettling to see a scientist spend so
much time in front of the camera talking about all the "first
in the world" accomplishments taking place in South Korea.
"It might have been better if Professor Hwang had
maintained a low profile and gone through his research," Oh
Il-hwan, a medical professor at South Korea's Catholic
University, said last week.
(With additional reporting by Lee Jin-joo)