South Korean Panel Debunks Scientist's Stem Cell Claims

By Anthony Faiola and Rick Weiss
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 10, 2006

SEOUL, Jan. 10 -- An academic panel investigating South Korean stem cell scientist Hwang Woo Suk concluded Tuesday that the embattled researcher's fraudulent experiments reach back further than previously known and encompass the most seminal of his so-called successes: the first creation of stem cells from cloned human embryos.

The new determination that the results of those experiments were largely falsified and that Hwang never obtained stem cells from cloned embryos discredits what had appeared to be one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the decade. The deception means that the highly touted field of embryonic stem cell research is years behind where scientists thought it was.

Hwang's claim, published in a landmark 2004 paper in the journal Science, heralded the stunning prospect of human cloning and the promise of using stem cell therapy to treat incurable diseases.

But the findings of a month-long investigation into Hwang's results by an eight-member peer review panel at Seoul National University, where most of the research was conducted, indicated that DNA studies on preserved stem cells did not match those from the published study and that they were not cloned human embryonic stem cells. The same panel had already determined that studies published in 2005, in which Hwang claimed to have made 11 stem cell lines matched to patients, were fakes.

The DNA testing of the purported embryonic stem cells from the 2004 publication indicated that they resulted from an entirely different and medically less promising process known as parthenogenesis, the growth and development of an embryo from an unfertilized egg using electrical stimulation or other means. Hwang had repeatedly dismissed speculation that the 2004 stem cells were developed through parthenogenesis.

And although the panel concluded that there is evidence to suggest that Hwang has successfully created some cloned human embryos -- a feat that has been achieved by others -- there is no evidence he was able to retrieve stem cells from them.

"Hwang basically lied to the Korean people and scientific world," said Chung Myung Hee, chairman of the peer review panel. "Hwang and those who participated in the fabrication of the paper should be severely punished."

The panel did vindicate Hwang's team on at least one major contention, deeming as legitimate the claim last year that it had produced the first cloned dog. That decision was reached after DNA testing on the dog, an Afghan hound, and its cell donor.

Medical researchers in the United States, reacting to what they described as one of the most significant scientific frauds in history, said they would now resume their own attempts to produce stem cells from cloned embryos -- widely considered a key to making stem cells more medically useful.

Until the growing questions about the research, Hwang and his team had been credited with putting South Korea at the center of the emerging international field of stem cell science. Their reported breakthroughs had been seen as offering new hope for patients with conditions including Parkinson's disease, diabetes and spinal cord injuries who could benefit from regenerative stem cell therapy. The research also held out promise for the cultivation of diseased tissue in labs for testing with new drugs.

The results from the Seoul university review follow disclosures Dec. 29 by the same panel that Hwang's team had fabricated a follow-up article, published in May 2005. In that article, the researchers claimed to have created 11 human embryonic stem cell colonies said to be exact genetic matches of patients who might have benefited from the cells, which have the capacity to repair damaged tissues. Independent DNA tests, however, failed to find evidence that any of the stem cells had been made from clones, discrediting what had been considered one of the major scientific discoveries of 2005.

The technique of producing stem cells from clones, somatic cell nuclear transfer, had already been accomplished in mice, but Hwang's research was the only claim of mastering the technique with human cells. The findings of falsification in both cases were apparently so conclusive that one university official said retesting of the data was not being considered because "it would be a waste of time and money," according to the semiofficial Yonhap news service.

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