Korean cloning scientist resigns

Researcher quits university after fake work revealed

December 24, 2005|By CHOE SANG-HUN AND NICHOLAS WADE | CHOE SANG-HUN AND NICHOLAS WADE,THE NEW YORK TIMES

SEOUL, South Korea -- Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, the South Korean scientist whose research on stem cells and cloning propelled him to international renown, resigned from his university yesterday after an investigative panel there found that he had fabricated the paper in which he claimed to have created stem cell colonies from 11 patients.

The South Korean government, which had vigorously promoted Hwang as the symbol of its drive to carve out a niche in biotechnology, admitted to "crushing misery" and said it planned to halt research funds for the 53-year-old scientist.

In both Korea and the United States, supporters of stem cell research expressed concern that the setback would damage the image of what was already a controversial field. Many critics have long worried that the high-profile tactics of famous scientists like Hwang fundamentally distort the scientific method.

The panel at Seoul National University pledged to impose an unspecified heavy punishment on Hwang and said it was investigating his other claims, of having cloned a dog and last year of achieving the first cloning of a human cell.

As he announced his resignation, surrounded by weeping students, Hwang said, "I apologize to the South Korean people for creating an unspeakable shock and disappointment."

But he insisted that he had invented the technology needed to clone human embryos and to produce stem cells that genetically match patients.

"Technology for patient-specific embryonic stem cells belongs to South Korea," he said before leaving his lab. "And you will find out that this is true."

The nationally televised announcement by the university, which examined data from his lab and questioned members of his research team, was the first official confirmation of a series of criticisms of his work in the past month, many of them posted on Web sites used by young Korean researchers.

Hwang had already retracted the stem cell paper, which appeared in May in the American journal Science, after critics and associates pointed out that photographs used to support it appeared to have been faked. He cited "human errors."

But yesterday, Dr. Roe Jung Hye, dean of research affairs at the university, said at the panel's news conference that the erroneous data "were not accidental mistakes, but were an intentional fabrication."

Roe said that Hwang had created only two stem cell lines by March 15, when he submitted his paper to Science, but concocted DNA fingerprinting and other lab data to make it look as if he had produced 11 lines that genetically matched patients.

"We determined that this is a grave misconduct that damages the foundation of science," she said.

The panel has not yet determined whether the two existing embryonic cell lines were derived from a patient, as Hwang reported, or were simply generated in the usual way from fertilized human eggs.

Roe also reported as false a principal claim by Hwang in the Science paper, that he had made human cloning far more practical by using fewer eggs to establish each cell line. He had reduced the average requirement from the 242 eggs he needed to establish the first cloned human cell line in 2004, to 17 per cell line, he wrote.

"We believe that the number of eggs he used was far more than he has reported," Roe said.

The breakthrough Hwang said he had achieved would have been a significant advance in therapeutic cloning, in which a range of degenerative diseases could be treated with tissues generated from a patient's own cells.

Yesterday, that potential was repeatedly cited - wistfully, angrily or with renewed determination - by scientists and others, here and in the United States.

The Rev. Kim Je Eun, a Methodist pastor whose 10-year-old son uses a wheelchair after a car accident and was one of the 11 patients cited in the Science paper, said he vividly remembered the day in April 2004 when the boy first met Hwang.

"My son asked him, `Doctor, can you make me stand up and walk again?'" Kim said. "And Dr. Hwang said, `You will walk again, I promise.'"

Dr. John Gearhart, a stem cell expert at the Johns Hopkins University, said Hwang's falsifications "will produce cynicism about the stem cell field and science in general." He added that scientists would need to persuade the public and policymakers that people commit fraud in science just as in any profession and that as scientists "we must make it apparent that we do our best to prevent the corruption of the scientific process."

A critic of stem cell research, Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of pro-life activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the field had been seriously damaged.

"It's all very well to say one scandal shouldn't set back the field," he said. "But Hwang's team was the field. If his results are false, then after seven years of attempts worldwide, no one has succeeded in getting even the first step in `therapeutic cloning' to work on a practical scale."

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