February 27, 2024


The descent of Hwang Woo-suk from the world’s premier stem cell scientist to disgraced liar is nearly complete. Seoul National University has sealed off his office and secured materials from his lab as it began a probe to determine whether his highly-praised research was either a deliberate fraud or just a badly botched experiment. In any case, Hwang has told the journal Science, which published his ground-breaking paper back in May, that he wishes to retract it.

One of the co-authors of the paper in which Hwang claimed to have produced 11 stem cell lines from cloned embryos has now alleged that Hwang fabricated some of the results. "Of the 11 embryonic stem cells described in Hwang’s study, nine are fake, with the authenticity of the two others yet to be confirmed," says Roh Sung-il, of MizMedi Hospital. Hwang denies this and says that he was "shocked" by Dr Roh’s remarks. His story is that the cells had been contaminated by a fungus and that someone else may have tampered with them or replaced them.

The only thing certain about the "flabbergasting" mess, as the editor of Scientific American described it, was that it was sure to affect the immediate future of stem cell research. How, no one knows.

From stem cell researchers’ point of view, there is an up side to the debacle. With the reputation of Korean science blackened the US, especially California, and Britain have probably regained the lead in the race to clone embryos. Some American bioethicists even hope that it will help to break the legislative stalemate in the US by showing that therapeutic cloning must be done in countries where it can be carefully regulated.

Some of the world’s leading experts in therapeutic cloning, including Ian Wilmut, the creator of Dolly, have published a letter in Science trying to hose down the controversy, calling for a quiet in-house debate amongst scientists rather than a noisy trial by media. They propose the creation of a internet database to ensure against contamination of cell cultures and scientific misconduct.