Cloned stem cell lines all false

December 30, 2005|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo Suk never made any of the 11 stem cell lines he claimed were derived from the DNA of sick and injured patients, an expert panel investigating the scientist said yesterday.

Roe Jung Hye, Seoul National University's research chief, said the panel could find no evidence for any of the claims in a blockbuster study Hwang published in May. The research was hailed then as a milestone in treating patients with spinal cord injuries and diseases such as diabetes.

Last week, the panel announced that nine of the 11 stem cell lines Hwang claimed to have created did not exist, and it said yesterday that the other two were actually human egg cells from a Seoul hospital.

As the panel continues to examine whether Hwang succeeded in producing the first human embryo clones or the first cloned dog, scientists, patients and others around the world are contemplating a more fundamental question:

Why did he do it?

"That's one of the great mysteries," said Marcel C. LaFollette, science historian and author of Stealing Into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing. "It does seem to boggle the mind. This is a high-wire act of the most astonishing kind."

Scientific fraud has been around almost as long as science itself. Perpetrators are driven by a variety of factors, including the need to secure research funding, win tenure and gain fame and recognition from their peers.

"Publishing is absolutely vital for your career, it's vital for your prestige, it's vital for your income, and it's vital for your funding," said Dr. Harvey Marcovitch, chairman of the Committee on Publication Ethics, a London group that advises scientific journal editors on ways to combat fraud in publications.

Sometimes, scientists do it simply because they're convinced their theories are correct and they are too impatient to take the time to prove it.

"Scientists are not disinterested truth-seekers," said David Goodstein, vice provost of Cal-tech and an expert on research ethics. "They are more like players in an intense, winner-take-all competition for scientific prestige and the resources that follow from that prestige."

Given the high stakes of big science, some experts say, they are surprised that fraud isn't uncovered more often.

Government agencies that fund scientific research track fraud, and they have found that the number of reported cases is "pretty consistent" from year to year, said Mark Frankel, director of the Scientific Freedom, Responsibility and Law Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington.

Cases of fraud can be as subtle as omitting inconvenient data or fudging a statistical analysis. Even when the data are real, they can be manipulated to support conclusions that aren't scientifically warranted.

A survey of 3,247 scientists published in June by the journal Nature found that 33 percent admitted engaging in some sort of questionable research practice, such as failing to present contradictory evidence or changing the design of a study to satisfy a funding source. Only 3 percent said they had deliberately falsified research data.

Marcovitch said he wasn't surprised that a case like Hwang's came up in the field of stem cell research, which has captivated government health ministers, venture capitalists and patient-advocacy groups.

"Vast amounts of money will be poured into stem cell research in the coming decades because everyone thinks that's the future of medicine," he said. "The temptation is great."

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