South Korean Scientist Denies Faking Stem Cell Data

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 17, 2005

The scientific and political maelstrom surrounding a renowned South Korean stem cell researcher intensified yesterday as the scientist vehemently denied a co-worker's accusation that he had faked much of his data.

Adding to the confusion, editors of the scientific journal that published the research said yesterday that the accused scientist, Hwang Woo Suk of Seoul National University, has asked them to retract the report because some of the data "could not be trusted."

The new events did little to clarify the facts behind one of the bigger scientific scandals in recent memory -- one that has put the already controversial field of embryonic stem cell research in unprecedented turmoil. At issue is the validity of seminal experiments that purported to show the practical usefulness of embryonic stem cells as treatments for disease.

At a news conference in Seoul, Hwang admitted there were technical problems in the contested work but aggressively denied any wrongdoing. He said he was in the process of thawing several cell cultures saved from the experiments and would perform tests on them to prove the veracity of his work.

Saying he was "surprised and embarrassed" by the public assertions of scientific misconduct leveled by his former colleague, Roh Sung Il of the MizMedi Hospital, he lashed out at his critics, suggesting that Roh or perhaps one of Roh's co-workers had fudged results.

Hwang also told reporters that he has two new scientific reports containing "very significant and important results" that have been submitted for publication in a scientific journal. Those results, he said, would confirm his historic, but now questioned, findings: that he produced embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos genetically matched to patients who could benefit from them.

"Our research team made patient-specific embryonic stem cells, and we have the technology to produce them," Hwang asserted.

Facts were still scarce yesterday as the high-profile meltdown left scientists around the world wondering how the story -- a rare blend of cell biology, reality TV and soap opera -- would play out. The one point on which Hwang and Roh publicly agreed yesterday was that the research article describing the work, co-authored with 23 others and published in the journal Science in May, ought to be retracted.

Editors at Science said yesterday that they had received a formal request for retraction from Hwang and Gerald P. Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, the sole American author on the paper. "After analyzing the data our team concluded that the data . . . could not be trusted," the request said, according to Donald Kennedy, Science's editor in chief.

Journal policy demands that every author agree to such a request and sign on to a statement detailing what was wrong with the paper, Kennedy said, adding that Hwang has informed the journal that he is undertaking that task now.

"It is clear the authors are going to need to provide more details as to where the errors lie and how they arose," Kennedy said, expressing hope that such a document might reveal the truth behind the crossfire of allegations. Seoul National University and the University of Pittsburgh are conducting investigations.

Kennedy defended the journal's review process, saying innocent errors and even fraud can be very difficult to detect in a manuscript. At some point, he said, a journal must take scientists' reports at face value with the knowledge that errors will typically become apparent as others try to duplicate the work.

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