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Seoul University to investigate Hwang cells

Korean researcher asked his institution to conduct probe into patient-specific stem cells to clear his name

By | December 12, 2005

Seoul National University (SNU) has agreed to the request of stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk to investigate claims his team had fabricated photographs of stem cell samples in a groundbreaking paper in Science in May. In the meantime, scientists are questioning whether the seemingly ever-growing controversy over Hwang's work will have lasting repercussions on stem cell research overall.

At a press conference today (December 12), Roe Jung-hye, dean of SNU's Office of Research Affairs, said that a 10-member investigation panel would focus on whether the Korean researcher fabricated figures of 11 personalized stem cell samples described in the paper -- and whether the patient-specific stem cells really exist, according to local media.

Meanwhile, news reports said that Hwang, who was hospitalized for stress last week, came to work on Monday. Outlets reported that he returned to his lab for the first time since admitting three weeks ago that researchers in his lab had donated oocytes for use in research.

Hwang himself alerted Science to the fact that there were duplicate panels in the article on December 4. After an investigation, the journal's deputy editor for life sciences, Katrina Kelner, said last week that the duplicate panels had not been part of the original submission but had been sent in response to a request for high-resolution images after the paper had been reviewed. "From the information that we have so far, it seems that it was an honest mistake," she said in a report on the Science Web site. "We have no evidence that there was any intent to deceive."

But Pressian, a Seoul-based online news site, reported on Sunday that Hwang had ordered a subordinate to fabricate photos of nine stem cell batches from just two cell lines for submission to Science.

The news service made the claim on the basis of transcripts it acquired from an interview between a member of Hwang's team and reporters for "PD Notebook," an investigative news program for Korean national broadcaster MBC. The Korea Heraldreported that the transcript included the following quote from the team member: "This April, Hwang made me create many pictures with two stem cell lines.''

MBC decided not to broadcast the program, citing the fact that PD Notebook staffers had used coercion and other unethical practices when interviewing other Hwang researchers.

In Australia, where authorities are undertaking a legislative review on whether somatic cell nuclear transfer should be permitted for research, scientists said the scandal could have repercussions.

Alan Trounson, head of the Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories at Monash University, Melbourne said he hoped the scandal would not have an impact on the legislative review, but acknowledged it could provide ammunition for those who oppose nuclear transfer research. "It would give politicians who have a negative view of the field reason to be critical of it," he told The Scientist.

"An ethical breach of any description inevitably causes collateral damage to other scientists working within the same field," added Stephen Livesey, chief scientific officer of the Australian Stem Cell Centre in Melbourne. "It is unfair and unwarranted, but a breach such as that which has occurred in Professor Hwang's group in effect undermines the public trust that other ethical scientists work hard to secure and maintain."

The feeling is somewhat different elsewhere, said Chris Mason, director of the Regenerative Medicine Bioprocessing Unit at University College London. "I don't think there will be collateral damage in the UK," he told The Scientist. "Here we have good and strong regulatory and ethical control that is designed to ensure this sort of thing doesn't happen."

Mason, who organizes several stem cell conferences, said the science community still recognizes Hwang as the leader in his field. "I think there's a witch hunt going on now [in the media]," he said.

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