Panel declares stem cell claim a fraud; Science to retract paper.

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

An investigative panel from Seoul University found no data to support Hwang Woo-suk’s claim that he created patient-specific stem cells.

Last week, the panel declared that Hwang may have created only two unique stem cell lines, not the 11 described in his paper published in Science last May. Thursday, the panel ruled that even those two lines were not what Hwang had claimed they were. DNA tests performed by three independent labs confirmed that the stem cells taken from Hwang’s lab were fertilized-egg stem cells from Seoul’s MizMedi hospital, not patient-specific stem cells.

“Stem cells with DNA matching with patient tissues regarding the 2005 paper were not found,” Roe Jung-hye, chief of the University’s research office, told reporters Thursday.

Friday, the staff of the journal Science stated that it is in the process of officially retracting the paper.

“There is no question in our minds that the stem-cell paper published 19 May 2005 by the journal Science needs to be retracted, and we are proceeding swiftly but appropriately in that direction,” said an editorial statement issued by the publication.

Hwang, who in recent years has become a national hero in South Korea, continues to insist that although he exaggerated his claims using fabricated data in the 2005 Science paper, he does have the technology required to create patient-specific stem cells.  In November, perhaps anticipating results of this inquiry, Hwang told the press that saboteurs had replaced the authentic stem cells created in his lab with embryonic stem cells taken from Seoul’s MizMedi hospital.

“We will be looking into a number of complaints brought to us, including the question of whether there was a switch,” an official with the Seoul prosecutors’ office told Reuters. The official said a criminal investigation of Hwang’s activities is also likely.

Before the recent rash of revelations cast a shadow over Hwang’s work, the researcher was widely praised for his controversial work on cloning.  If Hwang had cloned genetically-matched stem cells, it would have been a giant step towards new cures for diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

Hwang’s troubles began when it was discovered that he used eggs donated by women working in his lab for his research. He received more negative attention when US stem cell expert Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh asked both Science and the other authors of the 2005 paper to remove his coauthor credit.

In response to last week’s announcement by the investigative panel that he had deliberately fabricated data in the 2005 paper, Hwang resigned from Seoul National University. The University could not accept the resignation during an ongoing investigation.

The panel’s most recent findings call into question the legitimacy of all of Hwang’s previous work. Investigators are now testing the stem cell line described in another Science article, published in 2004, which was the first Hwang claimed to have cloned from a human embryo.  Doubts have even been cast on whether “Snuppy”, the Afghan hound supposedly cloned by Hwang, should be celebrated as the world’s first cloned dog.

The conclusions of the investigative panel’s inquiry will be compiled in a report in mid-January.

Originally published January 3, 2006

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