In the span of a few months, Woo Suk Hwang has gone from a scientist respected for his pioneering work in stem cell research to one who is guilty of scientific and ethical misconduct. An investigation of the Seoul National University (SNU) professor found that he fabricated the contents of two seminal research papers in the stem cell field.
The two papers at issue appeared in Science (2005, 308, 1777; and 2004, 303, 1669). The more recent paper, which was the initial focus of the investigation, reported the first successful derivation of patient-specific stem cell lines from cloned embryos. This work built on the group's 2004 report showing for the first time that viable stem cells could be derived from a cloned embryo.
Hwang's work began to unravel last fall when Gerald Schatten, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and coauthor of the 2005 paper, severed his ties to Hwang and raised questions about the ethical conduct in oocyte collection by the South Korean team. (Donor oocytes are a necessary material for somatic cell nuclear transfer, or cloning.) It wasn't long before the ethical concerns gave way to allegations from other Korean researchers of outright fraud, prompting an investigation by SNU into Hwang's work.
In the final report issued last week, the investigation committee found no evidence to support the claims made by Hwang in either Science paper. According to the report, data supporting all of the 11 reported patient-specific derived stem cell lines from the 2005 paper and the stem cell line reported to have been derived from a cloned embryo from the 2004 paper were completely fabricated. The committee did, however, find evidence to support Hwang's report of a dog cloned from somatic cells.
In response to the committee's findings, Science has announced that it will retract both the 2004 and 2005 papers. A statement from the journal notes that a systematic review is under way to improve procedures for detecting research misconduct.
The retraction and the events leading up to it have drawn attention to a field that is already walking a tightrope in balancing scientific progress with ethical boundaries. Adding a serious case of scientific misconduct to the mix has the potential to tip the scales and stop the progress of research in this area in its tracks, particularly if the public pulls its support for the work.
The loss of public support "would be the greatest tragedy," says Andrew Cohn, government and public relations manager at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF). "The potential for stem cell research to have a dramatic and lasting impact on human health is real, but the research must continue for this promise to be fully realized," he explains. WARF is a private, not-for-profit organization that supports stem cell research and holds key patents in this area.
But should the actions of one high-profile researcher mean the end for this fledgling field? No, and I think the public will agree. After all, as those in the field believe, the promise for cures and therapies is just too great.
Hwang's actions are a "violation of an individual's character, not a violation of the technology," says William M. Caldwell, chief executive officer at Advanced Cell Technology. He explains that the underlying technology is being used throughout the world and Hwang's work was just the first to extend it into humans.
Caldwell compares this situation with the recent troubles with Enron, where the actions of a few individuals were a violation of their character and not an indictment of the capitalist system. As with the Enron case, the Korean situation will be only a blip on the radar and will not have a significant impact on the science, he adds.
In fact, Caldwell notes that his company was doing studies similar to the Hwang team's in the early 2000s but switched focus when Hwang's 2004 paper came out. Now that the Korean work is being retracted, Caldwell says his company may reopen those studies.
"We, like others, are looking at returning to this line of research," Caldwell says. "This work needs to be validated so that there is no misunderstanding" that the technology is sound, he explains.
Hwang's actions will have repercussions for South Korea, which was using the research to stake out a position in the geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape. Caldwell notes that the refuting of Hwang's work is a "huge embarrassment" for the country. "The geopolitical implications of Hwang's disclosures are going to be felt for some time in Korea," he points out.
The situation also opens the door for other countries that have been trying to catch up with South Korea, which, as Caldwell says, "has been perceived as having an insurmountable lead in this area." Researchers in the U.S. are well-positioned to capitalize on this shake-up.
In the end, researchers who cut corners, both ethically and scientifically, will be exposed. Hopefully, Hwang's transgressions will not derail the promise of stem cell research.