April 23, 2024


 Investigators have confirmed that stunning advances in embryonic stem cell research by a team of South Korean researchers were fraudulent. Stem cell researchers around the world were dismayed. "This has set us back several years," said Chris Shaw, a neurologist at King’s College London who has a UK licence to clone human embryos. "It was as if Dr Hwang had sent us a picture of him on top of Everest, but it happened not to be Everest. He lied to us about that and Everest is still there to climb."

Hwang Woo-suk’s work has not been thoroughly discredited. found that he had indeed cloned a dog, as he reported in a paper in Nature last year. However, much of the data which he used to support claims that he had cloned human embryos and produced stem cell lines was fabricated. False, too, was his claim to have used only 427 human eggs. In fact, he used 2,061 eggs and failed to produced a single stem cell line. And false were his assurances that he knew nothing about his junior staff donating eggs for research. In fact, he pressured some into doing so. The debacle has been called the biggest scientific fraud in living memory.

Bouncing back: After a few days, however, it became clear that the fraud had not dented scientists’ enthusiasm for research on human embryos. In a typical response, the Institute for Stem Cell Research at Edinburgh University said: "These revelations about Dr Hwang do not invalidate the body of rigorous scientific evidence supporting the potential of a range of human cells, including embryonic stem cells, to provide medical benefit." And David Shaywitz, of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, commented, "If the current controversy were to cause us to precipitously abandon this exciting area, it would be a catastrophic shame."

Hype: However, even Dr Shaywitz was forced to acknowledge that stem cell hype was part of the reason why Hwang’s work had been so warmly received by his colleagues. , he explained that "As the demand for results far outstripped the ability of researchers to supply them, a seller’s market emerged in which goods were overvalued and even low-quality merchandise was snatched up by eager buyers. This is the context in which Hwang’s studies appeared. While most in the field of stem cell research were shocked by the reports of fraud, the shock was only one of degree; it is common knowledge that the bar for publication in this field often has appeared remarkably low, with even well-respected research journals seeming to fall over one another for the privilege of publishing the next hot paper. The result of this frenzy has been an entire body of literature that is viewed with extreme scepticism by most serious stem cell investigators."

Research ethics: An editorial in Nature pointed out that scientists are entering a new era of research ethics, a time "in which scientists may aspire not just to fame, but to fortune as well". In the fiercely competitive field of reproductive biology, international collaborations with countries with relatively primitive ethical standards are becoming more common. It urged scientists to "redouble" their efforts to promote high standards.

Economic consequences: Hwang’s downfall also hamstrings South Korea’s hope of tapping into a biotechnology boom whose leading products would be based on human embryonic stem cells. Korea’s state-run Science & Technology Institute had estimated that the global stem cell industry will be worth about US$33 billion by the year 2015 — of which Korea would have one tenth. At the moment, the governments of seven countries — South Korea, Australia, China, Israel, Singapore and Sweden and the UK — are spending at least US$18 million, and up to $160 million, on stem cell research.

In the wake of the disaster, critics are blaming the Korean government for its unrealistic expectations. "What he delivered certainly looked exciting for the political establishment in Korea," says Robert Triendl, of the Riken Research Center for Allergy and Immunology in Japan. "So, step by step, they put him in an ever more powerful position, without really understanding what his work was about."

Critical appreciation: Critics of the controversial research on embryos have had a field day. British philosopher David Oderberg, writing in the , called for an end to California’s US$3 billion stem cell institute: "Were a bishop to be caught doctoring the Gospels, I doubt any scientists would be rushing to approve the Church’s latest request for help to build a new cathedral. Why it should be any different for the secular bishops of science is difficult to discern." Whether the Hwang debacle will derail government funding of embryonic stem cell research is difficult to say. On the very day that the Hwang fraud was confirmed, the governor of Iowa called for a ban on therapeutic cloning in his state to be revoked. "We should… allow life-saving treatments to be administered to Iowans here in Iowa rather than forcing them to leave our state," he said.

Career move: Although he has made a tearful apology for his actions, Hwang could now face fraud and embezzlement charges. He still insists that he was betrayed by colleagues, several of whom are also being investigated by Korean authorities. If he escapes jail, Hwang is still eminently employable. The Raelians, the cult which believes that mankind was created by aliens and pursues immortality through cloning, have offered him a job in a secret research facility.