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.
He said the Hwang-Schatten paper had not been rushed into print but had in fact been analyzed in detail because its findings marked a major first.
"Obviously . . . a paper that apparently achieves a result that others have tried to get and failed gets subjected to especially careful scrutiny, and I think our peer reviewers gave it that," Kennedy said in a conference call with reporters.
The allegations of fraud relate to some of the most notable biomedical research findings of the past several years, in which Hwang described his team's successful derivation of prized embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos.
Stem cells, which grow inside days-old embryos, have the capacity to morph into virtually every kind of cell in the body and hold promise as all-purpose replacement parts for patients ailing from any number of diseases. Although many teams around the world have isolated stem cells from conventional human embryos created through the fusion of sperm and egg, no one had done so with cloned human embryos.
Cloned embryos, made by the fusion of a person's skin cell and a donated egg whose own DNA has been removed, are genetically identical to the person who donated the initial skin cell. Scientists suspect that since stem cells derived from such embryos would be genetically matched to the person -- presumably a patient who could benefit from a stem cell transplant -- they would be less likely to be rejected by that person's immune system.
No evidence has been presented to call into question those basic findings, described in a 2004 Science article that launched Hwang to global prominence and made him a folk hero in Korea. Nor has anyone raised substantive doubts about another of Hwang's historic achievements -- the first cloning of an adult dog, reported this summer.
The current storm involves a report published in May that claimed the creation of 11 new stem cell cultures, or lines, from cloned embryos with success rates much higher than in the 2004 report -- an improvement in efficiency crucial to the approach becoming medically practical. Among the potential problems are photographs purporting to show different cell lines that instead appear to be copies of a single photo, and mechanical tracings that appear to have been altered or hand drawn.
Earlier this week, Roh claimed that Hwang ordered underlings to fake the photographic evidence and other data. He also claims that most or all of the 11 cell lines do not exist. Hwang has already conceded that some photos were mistakenly substituted for others, but he has repeatedly denied any effort to overstate his accomplishments.
Yesterday, Hwang said that some but not all of his cell lines had succumbed to a fungus infection. He suggested that Roh or another co-worker who had been trying to salvage the dying cells may have secretly swapped other, conventional stem cell lines for the cloned ones after the cloned ones died.
"I am suspecting that my [personalized] cells may have been replaced by MizMedi's cells," Hwang said. "I am truly concerned as to who did such a thing like this for what purpose."
Roh called his own televised news conference after Hwang's, in which he called Hwang a "liar" looking for a scapegoat. Hwang "tries to beat truth with hypocrisy and cheap tricks," Roh was quoted as saying in the International Herald Tribune. "Dr. Hwang is a narrow-minded man who doesn't have the courage to admit that his paper was made with fabrication."
Pittsburgh's Schatten, who first raised alarms about Hwang by abruptly and publicly breaking off their 20-month collaboration in November, continued his weeks-long silence on the matter yesterday.
On Monday, Schatten asked Science to retract his name from the paper, which had listed him as a senior author. Science responded that he could not disassociate himself from the group effort.
"It's a 'sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander' proposition," Kennedy said yesterday. "You have to take the fall if it's wrong."
Special correspondent Joohee Cho in Seoul contributed to this report.