April 21, 2024


 News from Korea about the work of disgraced stem cell scientist Hwang Woo-suk becomes more confusing by the day. Only one thing is constant: today’s news is worse than yesterday’s. Hwang has finally resigned from the Seoul National University, while still insisting in a South Korean Buddhist newspaper that "I definitely have the source technology to produce tailored embryonic stem cells. I can replicate the process any time."

An article published in the leading journal Science in June by Hwang and 24 co-authors described the creation of 11 patient- specific embryonic stem cell lines from cloned human embryos. This data now appears to be fabricated. A university committee has done extensive DNA tests and found that none of the stem cells came from clones. Instead they came from IVF embryos. Hwang acknowledges that 9 of the 11 did not exist, but accuses scientists at Seoul’s Mizmedi Hospital of switching the other two.

The latest allegation to surface as a result of investigations by journalists at the TV program PD Notebook revisits the issue of informed consent. Hwang’s elaborate charade began to crumble in November when he was accused of obtaining eggs unethically. He acknowledged at the time that there had been some irregularities, but said that he had not been involved. Now a junior researcher says that he actually forced her to donate eggs. Park Eul-soon, a woman in her mid-20s, has told Korea media that in 2003 she accidentally spilled eggs to be used in Hwang’s experiments. Hwang then insisted that she donate her own.

Hwang may also have lied about the number of eggs he used. His team claimed that it used 242 eggs for its 2004 paper and 185 eggs for its 2005 paper. Now a university committee has found that the real number of eggs used may have been about 2,000.

Bribery by Hwang has also been alleged by the Chosun Ilbo. The newspaper says that two of Hwang’s close associates travelled to Pittsburgh in December and spoke with a whistleblower former colleague, Kim Seon-jong. Under aggressive questioning, Kim confessed to Korean TV journalists that he had fabricated data for Hwang. But after meeting the two scientists he altered his story to put Hwang in a better light. Now it appears that he had been given US$30,000 — purportedly as compensation for the mental stress of the TV interview. Kim returned the funds to SNU when he returned to Korea.

The Korean government, which in June named Hwang "supreme scientist" and has subsidised his work, is now feeling the heat over what the local media terms "Hwang-gate". One of the co-authors of the 2004 paper was Dr Park Ky Young, the Korean president’s science adviser. The government was told about the possibility of fraud in November, but in early December science minister Oh Myung called for an end to the controversy "for the sake of Korean science".