Stem cell research faked, co-author says


In the latest blow to a source of South Korean national pride, a hospital administrator said yesterday that the leader of his country's renowned stem cell program faked research that was widely hailed as a scientific breakthrough.

Some stem cell researchers in Baltimore and elsewhere said increasing doubts about the Korean program could set back one of the most promising avenues in medical science.

In a study published in May in the journal Science, Korean researchers reported that they had produced 11 lines of custom stem cells that could lead the way to treatments and cures for crippling diseases.

But the hospital administrator, who was a co-author of the study, said that nine of the stem cell lines didn't exist and that the lead author had admitted as much.

The allegation prompted the journal Science to take the unusual step of e-mailing all 24 authors of the paper for clarification of the study results. The journal also asked Hwang Woo Suk, the flamboyant lead author who had become a national hero, to address reports that he wanted to retract the paper.

Last month, Hwang admitted that members of the research team had purchased eggs from women for the study and also used eggs donated by junior researchers.

On Nov. 12, co-author Gerald P. Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh announced that he was severing relations with Hwang. Later, he asked that Science withdraw his name as an author. The journal refused, saying that would violate the journal's policy.

More recently, scientists showed that photographs of what were purported to be cells from different lines were photos of the same cells taken from different angles.

In the United States, a leading stem cell scientist said the latest accusation was "devastating" news to researchers hoping to advance stem cell research -- aimed at helping victims of diseases including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and diabetes.

"As things have progressed over the last month or so, it certainly has gone from bad to worse," said Dr. John Gearhart, a pioneering stem cell researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. If the allegations turn out to be accurate, he said, they would represent "a real betrayal."

Gearhart said he feared that opponents of stem cell research would use mounting ethical and scientific problems surrounding the Korean research as ammunition in their fight to stop it.

Richard Doerflinger, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the problems in South Korea were just the latest example of stem cell research being hyped.

"I don't need to capitalize on this," he said. "I think the results speak for themselves." But he added, "How could this be anything but a setback?"

Meanwhile, editors of Scientific American announced yesterday that they had removed Hwang from the magazine's 2005 list of leading contributions to science and technology.

Controversy surrounding the Korean program increased yesterday when Roh Sung Il, a hospital administrator who supplied human eggs to the stem cell scientists, spoke on Korean television.

Roh said Hwang admitted to him that he faked nine of 11 stem cell lines that he had claimed to have cultured while the two others were dubious. He also said Hwang planned to retract the study.

"The situation right now is this: we may still have two stem cell lines or none," Roh said on KBS television.

Hwang and his co-authors said the stem cell lines were created by implanting the DNA from 11 patients into donated eggs that had been emptied of their genetic material.

The paper was hailed as a demonstration that the technique, known as nuclear transfer, was an efficient means of creating embryonic stem cells that could be transplanted back into patients to repair diseased tissue.

Many scientists say this technique offers the best hope because the stem cells, made from patients' own DNA, are unlikely to be rejected by the immune system. The method produces a clone of the cell from which the DNA is derived, but the resulting blastocyst -- a precursor to a human embryo -- is destroyed once stem cells are harvested.

Embryonic stem cells are master cells that produce every specialized tissue in the human body, including bone, heart muscle and brain.

Hwang, a 52-year-old veterinarian, has been hospitalized for stress over the past week. He declined to comment last night despite the increasing number of reporters camped out at a university hospital, the Los Angeles Times reported.

In February 2004, Hwang's team reported that it had cloned the first human embryo and extracted stem cells from it. The work was inefficient, however, since only one in several hundred eggs produced a viable stem cell line.

In August this year, the scientist attracted international attention when he unveiled Snuppy, an Afghan that was the world's first cloned dog.

Though many scientists criticized that experiment as costly and useless, Hwang's group rebounded this year with news that he had created 11 stem cell lines, each from a different patient.

On Wednesday, eight leading stem cell researchers made public a letter to Science in which they asked Hwang's laboratory to allow them to independently test the cell lines. The group included Gearhart and Dr. Ian Wilmut, the Scottish veterinarian who cloned Dolly the sheep in 1998.

David Magnus, a Stanford ethicist who wrote an article on the ethics of Hwang's research when it first appeared in Science, said pressure on the researchers to succeed -- and make South Korea a center for stem cell research -- may have prompted them to cut corners.

He said the problems in South Korea should prompt a review of how research is conducted at other hospitals and universities.

"The question that this raises is: Are we doing an adequate job in our institutions of having safeguards in place that prevent this kind of thing in the future?" he said.

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