Panel Declares Research Fake

December 23, 2005

Hwang Woo-suk. Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk resigned his chair at Seoul National University (SNU) after a panel at the institution preliminarily concluded that Hwang had intentionally lied about his research. SNU said it could not accept Hwang’s resignation while the investigation was ongoing.

The panel found that Hwang, a national hero in South Korea, had only created two stem cell lines and had intentionally inflated this number to 11 in a paper published in Science last May. They said Hwang’s team had split cells from one patient into two colonies to create the appearance of cloned cells, and added that Hwang had used many more eggs to clone embryos than he had claimed in the study.

“Based on these facts, the data in the 2005 Science paper cannot be some error from a simple mistake, but can only be seen as a deliberate fabrication to make it look like 11 stem-cell lines using results from just two,” the panel said. “This kind of error is a grave act that damages the foundation of science.”

The panel needs to complete DNA testing before it can determine whether the two lines that have been disproved were actually cloned from a patient. Hwang said he was confident these lines would be confirmed as genuine.

“I emphasize that patient-specific stem cells belong to South Korea and you are going to see this,” he said.

The head of SNU’s Research Affairs Office, Roe Jung-hye, said Hwang had partly admitted that he had ordered the fabrication of data. She said he would be disciplined for his wrongdoings.

The panel added that its members will begin an investigation into the credibility of all of Hwang’s prior research, including Snuppy, an Afghan hound who was, according to Hwang, the world’s first cloned dog. Officials will know whether or not Snuppy is an authentic clone by early next week.

“I think a lot of the community [was] very impressed with the cloning of a dog—and it was a delightful dog—but I actually don’t think it is a cloned dog now,” Australian stem cell researcher Alan Trounson told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Serious questions about the authenticity of Hwang’s research were raised last week when collaborator Roh Sung-il told the press that Hwang had privately admitted to faking his data. Hwang later defended his basic technology but said he was withdrawing the paper from Science because of inaccuracies involving photographs.

Earlier that week, US stem cell-expert Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh sent a letter to Science and to the other authors of the paper asking that his coauthor credit be retracted. He also recommended that the paper be withdrawn.

South Korea has already spent an unrecoverable $39.9 million dollars on Hwang’s research, said vice minister of science and technology Choi Seong-sik. Hwang has also received the official designation of “top scientist” from South Korea. That title will be withdrawn.

(Sources: Chosun, Associated Press)