Woo Suk Hwang is a South Korean researcher who in late 2005 became the centre of one of the largest investigations of scientific fraud known to history, when two of his articles containing ground-breaking results in the field of stem cell research was set under investigation and later revealed as fake. In the first article, published in 2004, it was reported that Hwang’s team had succeeded in deriving a pluripotent embryonic stem cell line from a cloned human blastocyst. In the second article, published in 2005, they described how they had successfully established eleven patient-specific embryonic stem cell lines by somatic nuclear transfer of skin cells, retrieved from eleven different patients with a specific disease or injury, into donated oocytes. The stem cell lines matched the patients DNA and were immunological compatible. In theory this means that the pluripotent stem cells from the established stem cell lines can be transplanted back into the sick or injured patient, where it will differentiate into new tissue, replace the sick or damaged tissue and cure the patient. As the stem cells is derived from the patients’ own cells and are immunological compatible, complications like immune rejection are also less likely to happen.
The results were ground-breaking, as cloning had previously only been done in sheep, mice, cows and other mammals. But the fact that it was possible with these mammals, gave hope to that it eventually could be done with humans as well. Hwang used well-known methods for cloning but with some modifications, which made the concept not too difficult to grasp. What was more surprising was the high success rate of cloning they achieved. Cloning had previously been very inefficient and required a lot of trial and error.
The problems for Hwang and his crew began a few months after the first paper was published, when the methods by which they had obtained egg cells were questioned in an investigation started by the scientific journal Nature. As other researchers around the world had a very limited access to eggs, Hwang’s team allegedly had heaps of eggs at their disposal. Where did they all come from?
Some time after the second paper was published in 2005, more problems arose for Hwang and his crew, as a tip from a former lab-worker of Hwang to a South Korean TV-station raised doubts about the validity of the results from the 2005 paper. Based on the suspicion of ethical breaches regarding the egg harvesting and the tip of a possible faking of results, a team of journalists started to dig deeper – uncovering more and more unpleasant details.
Investigations revealed that the obtainment of eggs had been exposed to clear ethical breaches in that several donors had been paid and that female junior lab-workers had been asked to contribute. The number of eggs used in the research also appeared to be grossly understated. For the 2004 study it was first reported that 242 eggs had been used, while for the 2005 study the number was 185. It was later revealed that the total number for these studies was 2061 eggs, from 129 different women. This was considered an ethical breach because the egg donation involves a treatment where hormones are given to the women to induce superovulation to produce more eggs. Side effects from this treatment can be very unpleasant and is not considered entirely risk free. The fact that payment was offered for the eggs could have contributed to women which normally wouldn’t want to donate, did so because of the offering of money. The participation of junior members of Hwang’s own team can also be considered unethical, as coercion could have been a factor.
When it comes to the question whether the results in the mentioned articles had been fabricated or not, a university committee was appointed to investigate. The conclusion was discouraging.
The cell line from the 2004 paper turned out to be derived from a parthenogenic embryo, where an embryo develops from an unfertilized egg cell, and not from a cloned embryo as claimed. Also in the 2005 paper the results were revealed as fake. The data was based on two cell lines, not eleven, and nor were they patient-specific as claimed.
The disclosures resulted in Hwang resigning from his position and an indicted of three charges: fraud by knowingly using fabricated data, violating the bioethics law and embezzling of research funds to buy eggs. He was not found guilty in fraud, but for the other two he was found guilty and sentenced to two years suspended prison sentence. Hwang admitted to buying eggs and faking data, but maintained that the techniques that were used for cloning are valid.
So why did he do it? There have been many speculations, but Hwang himself have not been very talkative on the issue. One theory is that Hwang was under a lot of pressure. His achievement as a researcher had given him stardom in South Korea – he was a stem cell superstar. But people expected even more. And to deliver ground-breaking results in human cloning and have it published in a top journal would give him status as one of the greatest researchers in history. Another theory say that the Korean culture may have contributed in the way that they are expected to do everything fast. But this was also Hwang’s personal desire. He was extremely hard working, always being the first to arrive and the last to leave the lab.Besides being revealed as a faker and sent home in shame, Hwang has also without a doubt done good things for science as well. Perhaps what he’s second most famous for is the cloning of the Afghan dog Snuppy, which was created by transfer of a nucleus from a somatic cell into an oocyte.
Also, although maybe not on purpose, Hwang was the first one to produce a human embryo from parthenogenesis, when he was actually trying to clone an embryo as described in the 2004 paper. So he wasn’t all bad ☺.
Last, but not least, the scandal in South Korea lead to a series of revisions of the current Bioethics and Safety Act in order to create a clear set of regulations and laws to regulate biomedical research.
Woo Suk Hwang – Nature news, Nature Publishing Group (2006). Downloaded on the 23rd of March 2011 from http://www.nature.com/news/specials/hwang/index.html
See Spot get cloned, ZDNet. Downloaded on the 8th of April 2011 from http://www.zdnet.com/photos/photos-see-spot-get-cloned/14772?seq=2