By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2005
The scandal surrounding disgraced South Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo Suk deepened yesterday as an investigator told reporters in Seoul that none of the 11 tailor-made cell colonies Hwang claimed to have created earlier this year actually exist.
Korean news outlets also reported that the ongoing probe into one of the biggest scientific frauds in memory had broadened to embrace allegations that government officials -- concerned about the shame such revelations could bring upon their country -- may have attempted to bribe scientists who were considered potential whistle-blowers.
The still-evolving quagmire amounts to a massive political and scientific setback for South Korea, a country that had gained enormous prestige from the alleged scientific advances. The scandal also has delivered a body blow to stem cell science, a field of research born just seven years ago that, despite ethical concerns because of its reliance on human embryos, has generated great public enthusiasm. Stem cells, which can become any kind of tissue, show promise for the treatment of conditions including Parkinson's disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries.
The journal Science said it will retract Hwang's landmark May 2005 paper on tailor-made embryonic stem cells.
And although U.S. scientists in recent days have sought to contain the damage by focusing on the progress that has been made in stem cell laboratories in this country and abroad, many also seethed upon hearing the latest news.
"Unfortunately, the damage Hwang did can't be undone," said Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., a company that had been racing to make the first customized stem cells but found its venture capital cut off when the Korean team announced its success. "It can't be undone for us, and it can't be undone for the thousands of people who may die in the future because this research has been unnecessarily held up while [Hwang] played his games and traveled around the world like a rock star."
The latest chapter in the Korean team's stunning tailspin came yesterday in an update from the spokeswoman for the nine-member investigatory panel at Seoul National University that is looking into the allegations of fraud by Hwang and his team.
That panel determined last week that at least nine of the 11 customized stem cell colonies that Hwang had claimed to have made earlier this year were fakes. Much of the evidence for those nine colonies, the panel had said, involved doctored photographs of two other colonies.
In a conversation with reporters yesterday, panel spokeswoman Roe Jung Hye said the two colonies are real. But rather than being genetically matched to patients, as had been claimed, Roe said, they are ordinary stem cells, apparently derived from embryos at a Seoul fertility clinic.
That finding demolishes the last shred of credibility of what had been hailed as a seminal contribution to biomedical science: the alleged first creation of human embryonic stem cells matched to patients who might benefit from them.
"We learned that the two cell lines from which Hwang fabricated photos of the other nine cells for the Science paper do not match the DNA of patients who contributed . . . cells," said Roe, who is also Seoul National University's head of research affairs.
At issue is a research report published to great acclaim in the journal Science this spring, in which Hwang and his colleagues purported to show they had produced 11 colonies, or lines, of stem cells from human embryos that were clones -- or exact genetic replicas -- of 11 patients with a variety of diseases.
That marked a significant advance over previous reports in which stem cells had been derived only from conventional embryos made from the fertilization of an egg by a sperm.
Scientists hope to someday create tissues from stem cells that can be transplanted into patients with ailing organs. But unless the cells are genetically matched to a patient, there is a chance the cells will be rejected by the patient's immune system.
The latest report from Roe appeared to stop short of saying the claimed cell lines never existed. Hwang has said that some of his cell colonies were destroyed by fungal contamination. But such cells certainly do not exist now, Roe said, adding: "Hwang's team does not have scientific data to prove they did harvest patient-specific stem cells."
Hwang has also claimed that he was duped by other scientists on his team who, he has suggested, swapped conventional stem cells from the MizMedi fertility clinic in Seoul with his custom-made cells. The investigatory panel has determined that, all told, eight stem cell lines purportedly cloned from patients were actually made at MizMedi. But it has not said who was responsible for the deception.
The panel is looking into Hwang's August claim to have produced the world's fist cloned dog -- an Afghan named Snuppy. Although preliminary results from a human-DNA-testing firm were reported on Wednesday to confirm Snuppy's status as a clone, the panel has called for additional tests by animal DNA specialists.
Also still under a cloud is Hwang's 2004 publication in Science claiming the first creation of stem cells from any cloned human embryo.
"We commissioned additional tests on more samples of the stem cells featured on the 2004 Science article," Roe said.
A Korean news outlet also reported yesterday that two members of Hwang's team now working at the University of Pittsburgh -- Kim Seon Jong and Park Jong Hyuk -- received payments amounting to as much as $50,000 around the time the scandal started to emerge.
Chosun Ilbo reported that at least $20,000 was passed to Kim by another Korean scientist visiting Kim in Pittsburgh. That scientist, identified as Yoon Hyun Soo of Hanyang University, has acknowledged the money transfer, the news agency said, but claimed it was meant not as hush money but to help Kim with medical expenses.
Other news sources in Korea have reported that the Korean spy agency, known as the National Intelligence Service, has also acknowledged delivering funds to Korean researchers at Pitt, but those reports could not be confirmed.
The sole American co-author on the now discredited 2005 Science paper is University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald Schatten. Schatten was the first to draw attention to the problem in November when he abruptly broke off his 20-month collaboration with Hwang, claiming he had found evidence that the team's results could not be trusted.
Special correspondent Joohee Cho in Seoul contributed to this report.