February 29, 2024


The sorry saga of disgraced Korean stem cell researcher Hwang Woo- suk has an American sequel. Questions are still being raised about the work of Hwang’s co-author, Gerald Schatten, of the University of Pittsburgh. A special investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review found that the university had been lax in overseeing Schatten’s research and in following government guidelines for human research.

Although the most contentious feature of Hwang’s work was cloning human embryos, how he obtained eggs has also been roundly criticised by bioethicists and fellow scientists. It is mainly this issue which has cast a shadow over Schatten’s work. A key question in human subject research is whether the participants can be identified. If they can be, the experiment should have full ethical scrutiny by an institutional review board (IRB). Hwang’s violation of this principle was egregious: he even drove one of his junior researchers to a clinic where her eggs were removed.

However, it appears that Schatten did not inform himself adequately about how the eggs were obtained and that his university accepted his story too readily. In fact, the ethical review was very casual. Schatten approached the local IRB a month after his collaboration had already started and declared that no identifiable people were involved. The university officially responded that no scrutiny would be needed on the day after Schatten and Hwang had submitted their notorious paper to Science.

According to Mildred Cho, a bioethicist who was critical of Hwang’s study even at the time it was published, long before anyone suspected that it was a fraud, the members of UP’s IRB “knew they were reviewing a study that would be controversial, and knew they were reviewing research where the [egg] procurement process would put people at risk. That, in and of itself, could’ve been an argument to put the study through full IRB review.”

The question of why the university treated the ethics of this controversial research in such a cavalier way remains to be answered. Was it mesmerised by the prospect of becoming a leader in cloning research? Was it just carelessness? It is impossible to say. The university barely cooperated with the Tribune-Review’s investigation and Dr Schatten will not speak to the media.