Hwang faked results, says panel

Korean investigation committee concludes researcher manipulated data on 9 out of 11 stem cell lines; Hwang resigns

By | December 23, 2005

A Seoul National University (SNU) panel investigating a groundbreaking 2005 embryonic stem cell paper in Science announced Friday (December 23) that the team led by Hwang Woo-suk fabricated the results for at least 9 stem cell lines. In response, Hwang resigned from SNU.

Although Hwang said he created 11 stem cell lines, only two were present when he and his co-authors submitted their results for publication, the SNU investigation committee concluded in an interim report. Among the nine lines that remain unaccounted for, four were reportedly destroyed by contamination in January, three were not confirmed as stem cell lines before Hwang submitted the data to Science, and the other two lines have no records, according to the report.

"This leads to the conclusion that the experimental data submitted to Science in support of 11 stem cell lines (DNA fingerprinting, microscopic photos, confirmation of teratomas) were all derived from two cell lines," the panel said in a statement.

Committee members also concluded that Hwang used DNA fingerprinting to support his findings, but submitted stem cell fingerprinting data only for the two remaining cell lines, 2 and 3. The supporting data for the remaining lines, they said, came from somatic cells. The committee is currently conducting DNA testing of lines 2 and 3, "to determine their authenticity," and is investigating Hwang's claim that he produced the world's first cloned dog, Snuppy.

The panel's conclusions come only days after Hwang's research collaborator and co-author, Sung Il Roh, said in an interview on the Korean national broadcaster MBC that no patient-specific stem cells exist. "When I visited Hwang in hospital early this morning (Thursday), Hwang said there were no cloned embryonic stem cells at all," said Roh, head of infertility clinic Mizmedi Women's Hospital, in an interview quoted in the Korea Times.

On Thursday, Science published an editorial expression of concern, in which editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy said the journal has received a request from Hwang and co-author Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh to retract the paper, but was awaiting the consent of all co-authors. Kennedy noted that the journal is also taking a closer look at a 2004 Science paper by Hwang, in which he and his colleagues derived a pluripotent embryonic stem cell line from a cloned human blastocyst.

At a press conference on December 16, Kennedy told reporters that the editors and reviewers took the proper steps to check the validity of Hwang's findings, including translating the IRB reports twice and sending the manuscript to a higher-than-average number of reviewers, who also checked the revised version of the paper. "At the time of publication, we felt on ethically solid ground," Kennedy said.

However, he stressed that it's very difficult for the peer review process to detect "deliberate misrepresentation," and peer reviewers "are not going to catch everything."

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