By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005
Most and possibly all of the human embryonic stem cell cultures reportedly made by a South Korean research team this year were fake, a member of the team told Korean news outlets yesterday.
Roh Sung Il, an executive at MizMedi Hospital in Seoul, said stem cell pioneer Hwang Woo Suk told him that nine of 11 reported cell lines were faked. Roh reportedly said he had doubts about the remaining two lines.
Roh also said that Hwang told him that his stem cells had died and that he had presented ones from Roh's laboratory as his own in their research paper in the journal Science. According to the news reports, the two agreed they would ask the journal to retract the paper, which was published May 19.
That paper and another landmark report by Hwang's group, published last year, had documented the first successful creation of embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos -- a big step toward the ability to grow customized tissues for transplantation into people with failing organs.
If the work does prove to be largely fraudulent, it will be a major scientific setback for one of the most talked-about new avenues of biomedical research. It could also be a major political setback for the field, which has long been mired in controversy because it depends on the creation and destruction of human embryos.
Most such research is being done outside the United States because federal law prohibits the public funding of it here, but Congress is poised to consider loosening restrictions. Advocates for patients fear that an overseas scandal may undermine their campaign to increase U.S. support for what they consider a promising therapeutic strategy.
Roh's statements were reported by three television networks and in the Korea Times. Neither he nor Hwang nor their sole American collaborator, Gerald P. Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, could be contacted directly. None returned telephone or e-mail messages.
It was unclear yesterday whether the suspicion was that Hwang had made stem cells but misrepresented some details about them, or that he had never made them at all. Consequently, the scientific community was left with little more than secondhand reports that a 25-author paper generally agreed to be one of the most important published this year was fraudulent.
The four top editors of Science sent e-mail messages yesterday to all of the paper's authors seeking clarification.
"We basically want them to come directly to us if they have any questions about the data in the papers," said Executive Editor Monica M. Bradford. Science has received no request for a retraction from Roh, Hwang or any of their collaborators, she added.
The stem cell lines were reportedly made by injecting nuclear DNA -- the stored genetic information of an individual -- into egg cells whose own nuclear DNA had been removed. Each "hybrid" cell was then stimulated to divide and form an embryo. Stem cells, each capable of developing into every type of tissue in the body, are then harvested from the embryo when it is about 4 days old and consists of a few hundred cells.
The resulting tissue is a clone -- an exact genetic copy of one person. As such, it could theoretically generate biological "replacement parts" for the person who donated the nuclear DNA without threat the parts would be rejected as foreign.
In 10 of the 11 lines, the donor and recipient material came from unrelated people -- a condition that would have to work if stem cells were ever to become widely used. The donors all had illnesses that theoretically might be cured by tissue derived from stem cells. They included people with immune deficiency diseases, spinal cord injuries and autoimmune conditions such as Type 1 diabetes. According to the report, the stem cells were also produced far more efficiently than in previous experiments, with each round of egg donation from a fertile woman giving rise to about one line of stem cells.
Suspicions about the accuracy of some details in the May paper arose before yesterday.
On Dec. 1, the chairman of the institutional review board that reviewed Hwang's research proposals for ethical and scientific integrity told the editor of Science that two junior scientists in Hwang's laboratory had provided the eggs and had been paid $1,145 for expenses.
The May paper, and one published in March 2004 describing the first production of stem cells from cloned human embryos, said egg donors had not been paid. A correction noting the payment was electronically appended to the May paper and posted by the journal yesterday.
Ethical guidelines generally prohibit researchers and their employees from donating eggs because the women might feel pressure to do so.
On Dec. 4, Hwang told Science's editors that four pictures of stem-cell-derived tissue published online with the May paper were duplicates. That happened unintentionally, he said.
Stories questioning the validity of his research began appearing in the Korean media last month. On Nov. 12, Schatten, who holds faculty appointments in reproductive sciences and cell biology at Pittsburgh, announced he was severing his 20-month collaboration with the Korean scientist. On Monday, Schatten asked Science to remove his name as an author on the May article. The journal refused.
To retract a paper, all of its authors must sign documents either making the request or saying they will not oppose it. The journal can retract a paper over its authors' objections if it finds cause.
Staff writer Rick Weiss contributed to this report.