Stem Cells Findings Were Fake

South Korean researcher says stem cell findings were a fake

By Jennifer Bails
Friday, December 16, 2005

A simmering controversy over a groundbreaking stem cell paper co-written by a University of Pittsburgh scientist boiled over Thursday when a South Korean researcher said most of the findings were fake.

Fertility specialist Roh Sung-il told television broadcasters in Korea that his colleague—embattled cloning pioneer and lead author Hwang Woo-Suk—had agreed to withdraw the paper, which claimed that stem cells were created by cloning human embryos.

In another Korean news report, a former researcher said Hwang had ordered him to falsify photographs to make it appear as if there were 11 stem cell colonies from only three patients.

The researcher was identified only by his last name, Kim, and his face was not shown. He was said to now work in the lab of the paper’s senior author, Gerald Schatten, a leading reproductive and developmental biologist in Pitt’s medical school and deputy director for biotechnology development at Magee-Womens Research Institute in Oakland.

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Roh, whose name also appeared on the paper, told Korean news outlets that Hwang had pressured a former scientist at his lab to fake the data to make it look as if there were 11 colonies. Nine of the colonies were fabricated, and the authenticity of the other two was questionable, Roh said.

The research paper had met with international fanfare when published in June in the journal Science. Scientists considered this a major breakthrough because it suggested stem cells could be obtained efficiently from patients with diseases such as Parkinson’s and diabetes so they might be healed with their own tissue.

Pitt spokeswoman Michele Baum confirmed that three researchers from Hwang’s lab are working as research scholars at Pitt, but refused to comment further. Schatten could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Baum said Schatten will not speak to the media until an inquiry panel launched last week by the university’s Office of Research Integrity completes its probe, which will determine whether he is guilty of negligence or if there are grounds for an investigation into the much more egregious offense of scientific misconduct.

Pitt policy requires the panel to conduct interviews, examine records and research material and contact experts in its inquiry.

The panel met for the first time Wednesday, and Schatten attended a meeting at the Office of Research Integrity yesterday, Baum said.

“If we asked him every question the media has, he would not be able to cooperate with that inquiry, so everything is going to have to wait until that inquiry is finished, which we hope will be soon,” Baum said.

Schatten, of Point Breeze, is the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed publications dating to the late 1970s and is the only American who serves on the executive committee of the United Nations’ International Cell Research Organization.

He is the recipient of a prestigious MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health, which provides financial support to investigators with impressive records of scientific achievement, although the Korean stem cell research was not supported by U.S. government funding.

Schatten gained worldwide recognition last year when he formed a 20-month collaboration with Hwang that resulted in the publication of three key papers, including one that claimed they had cloned the world’s first dog.

Schatten did not conduct experiments in Korea, but helped Hwang to analyze data and write reports.

Hwang, who spent time in the hospital this week for apparent stress and exhaustion, did not answer his phone yesterday. He told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in August that he partnered with Schatten because of the Pitt researcher’s work in reproductive science and expertise in publishing in English-language journals.

“It’s a funny arrangement in the first place,” said Doug Engel, chair of the department of cell and developmental biology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which houses one of the nation’s few centers for research with government-limited lines of human embryonic stem cells.

“The work was conducted at another laboratory, so it was unusual for someone of Dr. Schatten’s stature to be listed as senior author,” Engel said. “It’s an unusual degree of responsibility placed on someone who was not intimately involved in the day-to-day work.”

Last month, Schatten severed ties with Hwang after the South Korean scientist acknowledged two junior workers in his lab donated their own eggs for the cloning research and a doctor paid other women for their eggs. Though not illegal, Hwang long had denied engaging in these practices, considered unethical by American scientific standards. Several data reporting errors also emerged.

“At the very first hint that something was wrong—literally within 24 hours—he (Schatten) was the one who blew the whistle,” said Dr. Evan Snyder, who heads the Stem Cell Research Program at the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “It is a good example of how the scientific community is able to police itself.”

The controversy escalated this week when Schatten asked Science to remove his name from the paper and urged Hwang to retract the entire article due to new, unspecified reports of fabrication.

“When one starts talking about fabrication of data, that ventures into the area of scientific misconduct, which knows no cultural boundaries,” said Snyder. “That is flat out wrong, no matter where it happens or why it happens.”

The editors of Scientific American announced yesterday that they removed Hwang from his position as the magazine’s research leader of the year.

“Scientific fraud is an unforgivable offense against the enterprise of research,” the editors said in a statement.

If substantial fraud is proven, scientists said, it would cast doubt on Hwang’s other work.

“If the accusations of fraud are documented, I think every one of his papers has to be called into question, from the time he was a student,” said Dr. Gerald Fischbach, executive vice president of the Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

Science said it had not received a request from Hwang to withdraw the article. The journal’s editors—who so far have stood by the stem cell findings and refused Schatten’s request for retraction—sent a message to Hwang asking for information, spokeswoman Ginger Pinholster said.

Jennifer Bails can be reached at or (412) 320-7991.

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