Hwang’s “Tailored” Stem Cells Fakes
If you’re a regular follower of stem cell news, you probably already know this, but Seoul National University has reported that none of the stem cells Dr. Hwang Woo-suk claimed to have individually tailored to patients were genuine. The DNA of the stem cells does not match the DNA of the donors. In other words, therapeutic cloning is where it was a year ago, or perhaps even worse off, given this scandal. The story is widely reported; I’ll give you a few quotes/reactions from various publications.
From The Scotsman
(an AP story that is in many papers):
"The bottom line is that it's a major disaster to our whole field, because the expectations were so high and now we are back to square one," said Joseph Itskovitz, a stem-cell researcher and director of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa, Israel. "We have actually to develop new technologies ... or seek alternatives to have cell lines that will be immunologically matched to the potential patient," he told reporters.
From a Reuters
Experts said one reason might be that the basic premise of Hwang's research made sense, and that might have led to less scrutiny than his work deserved. Hwang's team said it used a process for cloning human embryos that had been used already to clone sheep, mice, pigs and other animals. "The technical challenges were solved in theory but not in practice," said Laurie Zoloth, a bioethics professor at Northwestern University, located in the Chicago area. She added that it would have been easy to test the team's claims. "At the end of the day, this was an extraordinary failure on so many levels," Zoloth said.
From the Washington Post (also reprinted in many other papers):
"Unfortunately, the damage Hwang did can't be undone," said Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass., a company that had been racing to make the first customized stem cells but found its venture capital cut off when the Korean team announced its success. "It can't be undone for us, and it can't be undone for the thousands of people who may die in the future because this research has been unnecessarily held up while [Hwang] played his games and traveled around the world like a rock star."
From Chosun Ilbo (an editorial):
Intriguing though the mystery may be, the frustration of patients who pinned their hopes on a stem cell cure must be unbearable. A 12-year-old boy suffering from spinal paralysis who offered his cells to Hwang's team is said to have asked his father Kim Je-eon, "Will I never be able to stand up again?" Our country has 100,000 diabetic children and 130,000 spinal paralysis patients. It was they and their families who spread azaleas in front of Prof. Hwang's laboratory when it seemed he was the victim of a slanderous campaign, pleading with him to come back and continue the work that had galvanized their hopes. The government, which poured more than W65 billion (US$65 million) into the project and touted Hwang’s research as if a cure or incurable diseases was just around the corner, owes these patients at least an explanation.
Hwang’s prior work is now under investigation, including claims of the cloned dog Snuppy. Science will retract the 2005 cloning paper.
Let us hope that this is a wake-up call to universities, laboratories, journals, and scientists that fraudulent data is unacceptable. An editorial in the scientific news magazine The New Scientist (paid subscription only—I have one, but can’t link it for others) concluded, “Should researchers who transgress be penalised? The idea of a deterrent runs counter to the collaborative spirit that still flourishes in the scientific world. But have we reached a point where serious discouragement against bad behaviour is essential? The world's science academies need to address these issues. If they do not, it is a safe bet that their paymasters will. And nobody wants 2006 to go down as the year when governments and the public lost faith in science.” Well said.