March 5, 2024


Hwang Woo-suk and Gerald Schatten in happier days. -- Washington Post

Only days after the world’s leading embryonic stem cell researcher began receiving thousands of applications from sick patients who want him to make therapeutic clones with their genes, his project has sunk into a morass of scandal. Hwang Woo-suk became a world celebrity after creating the first human embryonic stem cell lines. Now he has been accused of lying and unethical practices by his American colleague.

For months, Hwang had repeatedly denied rumours that he had obtained eggs from a junior staff member, a serious ethical breach, and that the woman had received illegal payments for her eggs. Last week, Gerald P. Schatten, of the University of Pittsburgh, severed ties with the Korean researcher. “I have information that leadsme to believe he had misled me,” Schatten told the Washington Post. “My trust has been shaken. I am sick at heart. I am not going to be able to collaborate with Woo-suk.” Schatten’s university is also pulling out of the World Stem Cell Foundation, Hwang’s brainchild to provide hundreds of embryonic stem cell lines to world researchers. Schatten also said that there had been unintentional technical errors in the ground- breaking paper about therapeutic cloning which he and Hwang published earlier this year. He will give details later on.

Hwang told a press conference that he had followed all guidelines of the South Korean government and once again expressed his gratitude to “the blessed women who donated their ova for the research”. A spokesman for him said “No egg was provided from research staff as far as I know.” Hwang told reporters, “I will tell everything when the right time comes.”

If Hwang has lied, the reputation of embryonic stem cell research could be damaged badly. In the words of US bioethicist Glenn McGee, Hwang, I fear, could firmly establish in the public mind the view that stem cell researchers as a group cannot be trusted, not only because they are in a hurry and miss things along the way, but because they may be willing to deceive their own peers and the public about their devotion to ethics.”