Scientist Is Indicted for Faking His Research on Creating Stem Cells Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

South Korean biomedical researcher Hwang Woo-suk was charged with faking data in two landmark papers that described the production of the first cloned human embryos, the first embryonic stem cells derived from cloned embryos, and the first patient-specific embryonic stem-cell lines. Furthermore, the unfertilized human eggs used for these experiments were procured through unethical means, and Hwang misused the research funds secured for this work.

Summary of Event

On February 12, 2004, Seoul National University (SNU) biologist Hwang Woo-suk and his colleagues announced that they had successfully used somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to generate thirty cloned human embryos and derive an embryonic stem cell line from one of these cloned embryos. Hwang’s report represented the first time SCNT was successfully used to make cloned human embryos and derive human embryonic stem cells. The results were published as “Evidence of a Pluripotent Human Embryonic Stem Cell Line Derived from a Cloned Blastocyst” in the March 12, 2004, issue of the renowned journal Science. [kw]Faking His Research on Creating Stem Cells, Scientist Is Indicted for (May 12, 2006) [kw]Stem Cells, Scientist Is Indicted for Faking His Research on Creating (May 12, 2006) Genetic engineering Stem cell research Cloning Hwang Woo-suk Schatten, Gerald Chung Un-chan Experiments;faked Genetic engineering Stem cell research Cloning Hwang Woo-suk Schatten, Gerald Chung Un-chan Experiments;faked [g]Asia;May 12, 2006: Scientist Is Indicted for Faking His Research on Creating Stem Cells[03600] [g]South Korea;May 12, 2006: Scientist Is Indicted for Faking His Research on Creating Stem Cells[03600] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;May 12, 2006: Scientist Is Indicted for Faking His Research on Creating Stem Cells[03600] [c]Publishing and journalism;May 12, 2006: Scientist Is Indicted for Faking His Research on Creating Stem Cells[03600] [c]Science and technology;May 12, 2006: Scientist Is Indicted for Faking His Research on Creating Stem Cells[03600] Roh Sung-il Roe Jung-hye Kim Sun-jong Han Hak-soo

Hwang Woo-suk, center, is escorted by members of his research team after a press conference in Seoul in January, 2006.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

SCNT involves the removal of the nucleus (the cellular compartment that houses the chromosomes) from an unfertilized egg, followed by transplantation of a nucleus from another cell into this egg and artificial activation to initiate embryonic development. After growing in an artificial culture medium for approximately six days, surviving cloned embryos grow into semi hollow spheres called blastocysts. Blastocyst-stage embryos consist of external trophectoderm cells and internal inner-cell mass cells; the inner-cell mass cells are isolated and cultured to derive embryonic stem cell lines. The supplementary material to Hwang and colleagues’ Science article stated that the 242 unfertilized human eggs used for these experiments were collected from sixteen female volunteers, who provided them without financial compensation.

In May, 2004, the British scientific journal Nature discovered that some of the eggs used by Hwang’s group were donated by junior members of his own research team. Korean activists for citizens’ rights and bioethicists protested, because it appeared that an overbearing boss coerced his female graduate students to undergo a potentially painful and risky procedure. Nevertheless, Hwang denied any wrongdoing.

Hwang’s group announced yet another landmark advance in May, 2005. They claimed to have established eleven genetically matched patient-specific embryonic stem-cell lines. For SCNT they used nuclei from cultured fibroblasts (a cell from skin biopsies that grows well in culture) taken from nine patients who suffered from spinal cord injury, diabetes, or a disorder of the immune system. The fibroblast nuclei were transferred into nucleus-deprived eggs from female volunteers and grown to the blastocyst stage. These blastocyst-stage embryos were cultured to make patient-specific embryonic stem-cell cultures that were genetically identical to the patients from whom the fibroblasts had been isolated. These patient-specific embryonic stem cells could potentially be used to treat catastrophic diseases that require regeneration of hopelessly damaged tissues, without rejection by the patient’s immune systems. These results, published in the paper “Patient-Specific Embryonic Stem Cells Derived from Human SCNT Blastocysts” on June 17, 2005, in Science, were hailed throughout the international scientific community as a major breakthrough.

Although Hwang was a national hero by the time the article appeared, troubling questions and accusations arose nonetheless. On June 1, an investigative news program from the Seoul-based Munhwa Broadcasting Company (MBC) called PD Su-cheop had received a tip from a former Hwang research associate that there were enormous ethical problems with Hwang’s egg procurements and technical problems that made the production of patient-specific stem cells impossible. Four months later, on October 15, PD Su-cheop producer Han Hak-soo interviewed former Hwang collaborator Kim Sun-jong, who admitted that he had falsified two of the photographs in the 2005 Science paper under instructions from Hwang.

The following month, on November 12, Hwang’s American coauthor, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, announced that he was cutting all ties with Hwang and SNU, citing significant bioethical violations in egg donor recruitment for the 2004 Science paper. On November 21, Roh Sung-il from MizMedi Hospital in Seoul, who supplied eggs for Hwang’s research, announced that in 2002 he had paid at least twenty women approximately $1,430 each for eggs that were used in the 2004 study. These egg collections occurred before the South Koreans had passed their bioethics laws that made it a crime to pay for eggs. Roh insisted that Hwang did not know about these payments, but on November 24, Hwang admitted that he had used these eggs with full knowledge of this impropriety. He resigned his directorship of the World Stem Cell Hub but remained at SNU and vowed to continue his research.

On November 22, PD Su-cheop had reported the results of its preliminary analysis of Hwang’s 2005 Science paper. MBC had acquired five samples from the patient-specific cell lines allegedly made by Hwang in his 2005 Science paper and sent the samples, along with tissue samples from the patients whose nuclei supposedly were used to construct the patient-specific embryonic cell lines, to an independent lab for corroboration. DNA analyses from this independent lab showed that the DNA from one of the patient-specific cell lines did not match the tissue sample as it should, which raised the distinct possibility that the embryonic stem-cell lines were not made from cloned embryos. For its efforts at exposing Hwang’s fraud, the news program was taken off the air for more than one month after the public condemned its report as too harsh against the researcher.

On December 7, thirty SNU faculty members delivered a petition to SNU president Chung Un-chan, requesting that the university launch its own investigation into the results of Hwang’s 2005 Science paper. The university began its investigation on December 12 and carefully examined all the materials allegedly generated by Hwang and his colleagues. This inquiry ended on December 29, when Roe Jung-hye, SNU dean of research, announced that “there are neither patient-specific stem-cell lines in Hwang’s laboratory nor any scientific evidences to support the claim that such cell lines ever existed.”

Further investigations showed that the untruths in Hwang’s landmark 2004 and 2005 papers could only be the result of deliberate fabrication. Additionally, it was clear that Hwang had pressured female lab workers to donate their eggs. Science officially published the retraction of Hwang’s 2004 and 2005 papers on January 20, 2006.

On March 6, Hwang admitted that he ordered his fellow researchers to falsify data for the 2005 Science paper. On March 20, SNU fired him, and he was indicted on charges of fraud, embezzlement, and violations of bioethics laws on May 12; several of his collaborators were indicted on similar charges. He reportedly opened animal-cloning laboratories near Seoul and in Thailand.

Impact

Hwang’s faked research stifled international embryonic stem-cell research. Many labs ceased trying to clone human embryos after Hwang announced his success. After news of Hwang’s fraud came to light, stem-cell labs were forced to restart the complicated task. Furthermore, the scandal led scientific journals to reevaluate the peer-review system to more effectively detect fraud before it gets published.

Hwang’s ethical improprieties with egg donor recruitment also generated extensive discussions about standards for regulating egg procurement for embryonic stem-cell research. Some argue that egg donations, as is the case with organ donations, should be free of financial considerations. Others counter that because the hormonal induction used to hyperstimulate the ovaries during egg donation carries significant short- and long-term health risks, it is inappropriate to ask women to endure such risks without remuneration.

Another effect of Hwang’s prevarication was its impact on the public, including investors. For example, the fraud revelation led to the temporary cancellation of PD Su-cheop for airing its exposé and led to the abrupt fall in stock prices of several South Korean biotechnology companies. Also, Hwang’s blatant dishonesty—and the dishonesty of his colleagues—will be added to the arsenal of those opposed to embryonic stem-cell research. Genetic engineering Stem cell research Cloning Hwang Woo-suk Schatten, Gerald Chung Un-chan Experiments;faked

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chong, Sei, and Dennis Normile. “Stem Cells: How Young Korean Researchers Helped Unearth a Scandal.” Science 311 (2006). Discussion of how a South Korean investigative news show and young South Korean scientists launched the inquiry that brought Hwang’s fraudulent publications to light.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cyranoski, David. “Korean Stem-Cell Stars Dogged by Suspicion of Ethical Breach.” Nature 429 (2004). The report that initially drew attention to the ethical breaches surrounding Hwang’s recruitment of egg donors, by the science reporter who covered the Hwang scandal for this British journal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herold, Eve. Stem Cell Wars. New York: Palgrave, 2006. A supportive polemic for discussion of human embryonic stem cells that focuses largely on politics, by a science reporter who interviewed Hwang on several occasions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hyun, Insoo. “Fair Payment or Undue Inducement?” Nature 442 (2006). Commentary by a Case Western Reserve University bioethicist on the dangers of egg donation and the case for financially remunerating egg donors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wohn, Yvette D., and Dennis Normile. “Prosecutors Allege Elaborate Deception and Missing Funds.” Science 312 (2006). A detailed report of the charges brought against Hwang and his associates.

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