Korean Stem Cell Lines Faked

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 23, 2005

A team of independent investigators at Seoul National University has determined that at least nine of 11 human embryonic stem cell colonies whose creation was announced amid great fanfare earlier this year were fakes, deeply undermining the credibility of what had appeared to be some of the most spectacular biomedical achievements of the past two years.

The stem cell colonies, created by the university's star researcher, Hwang Woo Suk, had been among the first grown from cloned human embryos and had been said to be exact genetic matches to 11 patients who might benefit from the cells, which have the capacity to repair damaged tissues.

But the results, published in the journal Science this spring, were called into question last month when the team's sole American collaborator abruptly withdrew from his 20-month association with the Korean team, citing unspecified doubts about the veracity of the work.

Since then one of Hwang's senior co-workers, Roh Sung Il, has accused Hwang of overstating the number of cell colonies created.

At first, Hwang counterattacked, admitting to relatively minor problems with his work, and saying that he thinks his cells may have been swapped with others from a different laboratory without his knowledge.

Today, Hwang resigned from his position as a professor, the Associated Press reported.

"I sincerely apologize to the people for creating a shock and disappointment," Hwang told reporters as he was leaving his office at Seoul National University, according to the AP. "As a symbol of apology, I step down as professor of Seoul National University."

The investigatory results are preliminary, awaiting confirmation from DNA testing that will also help determine the validity of the two remaining cell colonies. But in a statement released yesterday, university investigators made it plain they do not believe that the reported findings were real. At most they said, Hwang's team appears to have created two lines of the coveted stem cells, then either substituted others or split those colonies into fractions to make it appear as though there were more.

"Based on these facts, the data in the 2005 Science paper cannot be some error from a simple mistake, [and] cannot be but seen as a deliberate fabrication to make it look like 11 stem-cell lines using results from just two," the university panel said.

Science is investigating as is the University of Pittsburgh, the academic home of the American collaborator, Gerald Schatten.

None of the researchers was available for immediate comment late last night.

If confirmed, the fraud would be one of the most significant in recent memory and a tremendous scientific and political blow to what has been one of the most promising and controversial fields of medical research in years -- promising because embryonic stem cells appear to have an unparalleled capacity to help regenerate failing organs, and controversial because the work depends on the creation and destruction of days-old human embryos.

Roe Jung Hye, dean of research affairs at the university, told reporters at a Seoul news conference Friday that at least one other important aspect of Hwang's 2005 paper appears to have been falsified: the efficiency with which Hwang said he was able to create stem cell colonies. While earlier attempts by him, reported in 2004, had required many eggs to get a single colony of cells, the new report had said he could do so with as few as 20 or so -- a major advance toward making the procedure medically practical.

Roe said, however, that the university has "found that there have been a lot more eggs used than were reported." The exact number has yet to be determined, he said, reiterating his conclusion that Hwang was knowledgeable of the fakery and personally responsible.

"It's hard for Professor Hwang to escape grave responsibility," Roe said.

Also now in question is Hwang's seminal 2004 report, also in Science, in which he was the first to claim to have created human embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos. Although embryonic stem cells had been grown by others from conventional embryos created by the fertilization of eggs by sperm, no one else had ever grown them from cloned embryos or has reported doing so since. Researchers suspect that the cloning approach could help prevent the cells from being rejected by patients' immune systems.

Another journal, Nature, said this week that it is looking into whether one of Hwang's studies published in that publication this year -- on the first cloning of an adult dog -- may have also been faked, though it said it has no evidence to support the proposition that the dog, Snuppy, is not a clone.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company