February 25, 2024


 Three investigations have been launched into the research of therapeutic cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk, of South Korea. The journal Science, in which his article about extracting stem cells from cloned human embryos was first published, is conducting an inquiry after mistakes emerged about the presentation of his data. And both the Seoul National University, where Hwang has his lab, and the University of Pittsburgh, which had very close links with Hwang, are also conducting probes into his work. Hwang has said that he will cooperate with the inquiries.

When the controversy first caught fire, it appeared that the only issue was whether the egg donors for the cloning process had been volunteers and whether they had give true informed consent. Scientists outside of Korea expressed confidence in the integrity of his scientific work even after Hwang admitted that he had lied about the donors. However, Korean internet news agency Pressian and TV network MBC dug harder and produced allegations that some of the data had been falsified.

Hwang has admitted that some of the photographs of the 11 stem cell lines which appeared on the on-line version of his article were actually duplicates. This was shrugged off by Science as a minor editing error. But now Pressian has published a transcript of a suppressed interview with a former associate of Hwang, Kim Sun-jong, who told MBC that Hwang had told him to duplicate photographs of cell clusters. There may have been only two stem cell lines, and the other nine may have been duplicates.

According to the Joon Ang Daily, a group of scientists at SNU feel that much of Hwang’s data appears unreasonable, particularly the DNA fingerprinting used to match DNA samples. In an appeal to the SNU president to open an inquiry, they wrote: "We are extremely worried that, by keeping silent, we are endangering the international credibility of the Korean scientific community, which in turn will cause irreversible damage to our country."

Under the intense pressure that the affair has generated in Korea, Hwang collapsed. He spent much of last week in hospital recovering from stress. He left on Monday, but soon returned. He has said that he will cooperate with the inquiries. The fracas has not shaken Hwang’s belief in the value of therapeutic cloning, however. He told Time magazine in an interview that "stem-cell therapy is the only way to treat patients with degenerative disease".

Australia is about to debate whether or not to legalise therapeutic cloning and researchers fear a backlash because of the scandal. A leading Australian stem cell researcher, Alan Trounson, of Monash University, told The Scientist that it would provide ammunition for critics of therapeutic cloning. "An ethical breach of any description inevitably causes collateral damage to other scientists working within the same field," commented Stephen Livesey, chief scientific officer of the Australian Stem Cell Centre in Melbourne.