Scandal over Falsified Results Roils the Stem Cell Research Community

In May of 2005, a paper by Dr. Woo Suk Hwang published in the prestigious journal Science reported that he and his team of South Korean scientists had successfully created eleven patient-specific stem cell lines cloned from the patient’s skin cells. Hwang was already a hero in South Korea for reportedly cloning human embryos a year earlier using somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). As described in Science, this breakthrough suggested that stem cells could be successfully harvested from cloned embryos. In just two years, Hwang had become a world leader in the field of stem cell research. His research suggested that science was one major step closer to tailor-made stem cells for any human.

But all was not well. First came the news that female workers at Hwang’s own lab had supplied the embryos used to make the clones, a serious breach of professional ethics. Then came news that Hwang’s success in producing stem cells from eleven stem cell lines may have been too good to be true. By December of 2005, after members of Hwang’s own research team asserted that he falsified results, a panel set up by Seoul National University found that at least nine of the eleven stem cell lines Hwang claimed to have made did not exist. A month later, in January of 2006, the panel concluded that Hwang had not produced a single stem cell line at any time, prompting Science to retract Hwang’s articles from both 2004 and 2005.

Hwang made a tearful apology on live television in South Korea for the shame he had brought upon himself, his university, and the nation. But despite admitting that his results were fraudulent, he placed blame on the researchers who were responsible for creating the stem cell lines from the 101 cloned embryos that he says had been produced using SCNT. Hwang claimed that it was they who had cheated, and that he had been tricked into believing their results.

In May of 2006, Hwang and several other members of his research team were indicted for fraud, for breach of South Korean bioethics laws, and also for embezzling $3 million in funding.

The fall-out of the scandal not only shook the science community but the community of reviewers and writers who report on science. Science created its own panel to examine how its editorial process had failed to catch inaccuracies in Hwang’s paper. Science reporters, whom ordinary people rely on to read journals and translate technical articles into everyday language, vowed to pay closer attention to these journals and take more time to review results before publicizing science news in mainstream media.

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