Online Scientific Community in South Korea Uncovers Fabrication of Data in Acclaimed Stem Cell Research Papers
A famous Korean scientist, Professor Hwang Woo-suk resigned from his position as Professor at Seoul National University (SNU) on Friday, December 23. An 11 member panel at the university investigating allegations that his research papers were based on fabricated data issued its first report on their findings on Friday morning. The panel announced that it had determined that Hwang fabricated the existence of 11 lines of stem cells when his laboratory records only described 2 lines of stem cells. The panel concluded that this was not the result of "simple mistakes but it was intentionally fabricated."
Questions about Hwang's research and the data used to substantiate the findings in papers published in the American journal "Science" were first raised on several online science related web sites in Korea. These web sites are Scieng, the web site of the Association of Korean Scientists and Engineers, BRIC, the web site of the Biological Research Information Center, and the Science Gallery of DCInside. Netizens posting on these web sites began to examine the data and evidence in Hwang's paper
A public controversy over the ethical questions raised by his using ova donated by research subordinates, was soon overshadowed by online posts on the scientific web sites that data for his paper "Patient-Specific Embryonic Stem Cells Derived from Human SCNT Blastocysts" had been fabricated.1. Online posts and discussion analyzed the photos provided as evidence for the findings in his paper. The paper claimed that 11 lines of patient-specific stem cells were generated by cloning. Online posts documented that a number of the photos were of the same two lines of stem cells, but had been presented in a way to make them appear as 11 different lines.
Other questions were raised about Hwang's other research papers. For example, one post at the BRIC web site observed that the photo of a cloned human embryonic stem cell in Hwang's 2004 paper was a duplicate of a photo of an ordinary stem cell that appeared in a paper by other researchers which appeared in another journal in 2004. The scientist who posted a picture comparing the two photos from these different papers proposed that this showed that Hwang had not cloned stem cells. He argued:
If you made a cloned embryonic stem cell for the first time in the world, would you take its picture with another ordinary stem cell? This shows Hwang also doctored photos in the 2004 paper.
A post on the BRIC message board by an anonymous writer, first pointed out a duplication of images early on December 5. Then on December 7 a critique of the DNA fingerprinting that had been used to show that the cloned stem cells were patient-specific was posted on the web site by an anonymous poster. The critique showed that there was a genetic match between what were reportedly different samples arguing that the traces for several different supposedly cloned cell lines appeared to be identical to the traces from the respective patients. Based on the postings on the web site, there was concern that not only had data been fabricated, but that the claim of having produced patient-specific stem cells might also be false.2
Hwang had been considered a top Korean scientist and his scientific achievements were celebrated by the Korean government, which in June 2005 had conferred the title "Supreme Scientist" on Hwang and included research funding of 3 billion won a year ($3 million) which is what is needed to operate a laboratory with 50 to 100 researchers.
His research to produce patient-spectific stem cells was hailed as promising to provide a means to treat diseases and injuries that result from defects to specific cells. If the cells could be replaced with others which were not prone to rejection, treatments for serious injuries like spinal cord injuries, and for diseases like Parkinson's disease and Diabetes could be developed. His research was seen to hold great hope for significant medical advances.
Similarly there was government and corporate support for the leadership role in stem cell research that Hwang's research represented for South Korea. The World Stem Cell Hub funded by the government with up to 5 billion won, opened in October at Seoul National University Hospital. Hwang was to head the Hub which was seen as an international center for collaboration on new research fields related to stem cell research and the development of new drugs for treatment based on the discoveries.
In other research papers, Hwang claimed to have pioneered the first patient-specific stem cells from a cloned embryo, and the first cloned dog.3 All of these research papers are now under investigation as a result of the findings of the SNU panel and the acknowledgement by Hwang and other researchers who worked with him that data for the June 2005 paper was fabricated.
Questions over ethical problems with Hwang's research were originally raised by interviewers from the journal Nature who visited Hwang's laboratory in 2004 and tried to learn about the research he was doing. The article in Nature which followed the visit mentioned that some of the ova for Hwang's research had been provided by two of the researchers in his laboratory. This is a potential ethical violation as scientist have agreed to follow the Helsinki Agreement. One provision requires that ova used for research be the result of a voluntary process and that the women donating their ova not be under any form of pressure to make the donation. Researchers who are in a subordinate position, like the two female researchers in Hwang's laboratory, are less likely to be making their donations voluntarily and thus the practice of using ova from those who are in a position of subordination is frowned upon as an ethical violation.
In fall 2005, a television investigative report was aired by MBC-TV's PD Notebook program alleging ethical violations with respect to how the ova for his experiments had been obtained.
The American researcher Professor Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh collaborated with Hwang and is listed as the senior author on Hwang's June 2005 paper published in Science. Schatten's involvement in the scandal is now under investigation at the University of Pittsburgh. Questions are also being raised about the processes of the journal Science which failed to spot the fabricated data and instead rushed the paper through its review process publishing the paper two months after receiving it instead of four to six months later as is more common.
There have been concerns raised about how this scandal will impact the reputation of Korean science and scientists. What has emerged as signficant, however, is the achievement of the online media and more signficantly, the online scientific community in Korea which effectively fought against the power and intimidation that was brought to bare by politicians, government officials, corporate entities, and the mainstream conservative media to continue the support of Hwang against those who initially raised concerns about problems with Hwangs work.