January 25, 2006

Korean Cloning Scandal Shows System Works: Expert

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - South Korea's cloning scandal shows that the current research system can police itself and that governments don't need to crack down on scientific fraud, a stem cell expert said on Wednesday.

Scientist Hwang Woo-suk has been stripped of his titles at Seoul National University, and South Korean prosecutors have said Hwang's team did not produce any human embryonic stem cells in 2004 and 2005, as it had claimed in landmark papers.

The scandal has stunned scientists, who believed that Hwang had made a technological breakthrough in first cloning a human embryo and then making several more as sources of tailor-made embryonic stem cells.

"My biggest ... concern was that the public would blame all of science," said Dr. Evan Snyder, stem cell program director at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, California.

"Hwang's downfall carries two serious implications for the public's perception of science. First, it reinforces the view that scientists cannot be trusted. Second, it creates the impression that stem-cell biology has been discredited or that progress in this field has been brought to a standstill. Both conclusions would be terribly wrong," Snyder wrote in a commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Snyder said he fears an outraged public might call for government intervention into stem cell science.

"I wanted to emphasize that that actually is not what is called for," Snyder said in an interview carried on the Journal's Web site. "I think the system does work."

Hwang was exposed after colleagues raised questions about his work, including a U.S. stem cell researcher, Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh.

The journal Science, which published the two studies by Hwang, was embarrassed by the fabrications and is reviewing its procedures for checking submitted research.


Scientists point out that scientific fraud is rare because the whole point of publishing research is for others to pick it apart and try to replicate it.

"Publication certainly is not the first minting of the truth. Publication simply now means that this is ready to be aired to the scientific community," Snyder said.

Embryonic stem cell research and cloning are controversial in the United States. Scientists say stem cells taken from days-old embryos might one day be used to create tailor-made medical treatments, and say studying them can help doctors better understand disease.

But opponents say destroying an embryo, however early, is tantamount to taking a human life. Many especially oppose the use of cloning technology to make the embryos used as sources of cells.

U.S. President George W. Bush is among the opponents and in 2001 severely restricted the use of federal funds to pay for research using human embryonic stem cells.

Snyder said he and other supporters of stem cell research suspect this attitude may have helped create the Hwang scandal.

"Indeed, one could argue that governmental intervention in the scientific process actually contributed to some of the problems: in South Korea, government officials may have been complicit in motivating Hwang to publish prematurely," he wrote.

"And in the United States and elsewhere, governmental restrictions on funding for stem-cell research have enabled a few well-funded investigators, such as Hwang, to fill the void, establish a monopoly on certain procedures or knowledge, and deprive science of what it needs most -- an opportunity for the rapid, independent validation of data."