On the Bookshelf: Reflections on South Korea's stem cell scandal
Last May, scientists in South Korea rocked the stem cell world with news that they had created 11 stem cell lines that were genetically identical to patients with disease or spinal cord injury. But last week, an investigative panel at Seoul National University announced that all of the data from star researcher Hwang Woo Suk's groundbreaking study had been faked.
Now scientists are wondering if they should have to question all of Hwang's pioneering stem cell work, from the 2004 paper in which he first announced his team had gotten stem cells from a cloned human embryo to the August debut of Snuppy, the first cloned dog.
Note: After this interview was carried out, the Seoul National University investigative panel released its final report Jan. 10, concluding that Hwang had also faked data for his earlier, 2004 paper in which he claimed to have extracted stem cells from cloned embryos. (1/14/06)
What does it all mean for stem cell research, which has the potential to someday cure disease? U.S. News spoke with Christopher Scott, executive director of the Program on Stem Cells and Society at the Stanford University School of Medicine and author of the new book Stem Cell Now: From the Experiment That Shook the World to the New Politics of Life.
How bad is the news about the South Korean research?
It's gone from bad to worse to just terrible. The South Korean results in 2004 shook science to its core. The fact that Dr. Woo Suk Hwang could take an egg and put a somatic cell nucleus in it using the same procedure that cloned Dolly [the sheep] and produce a human line of stem cells was just a groundbreaking result. And then in March of 2005, he announced that he had done it again, except now he had created 11 lines, using on average just one embryo donor for each line, which is a stunning improvement. That was also a groundbreaking result, and it is that result that everybody is questioning.
So this fall, Hwang admitted that he hadn't been honest about egg donation practices. That looked bad, but things still got worse.
Then some of his collaborators have come forward saying he lied about the data. And he now is fessing up and saying, yeah, it looks like some of the data I submitted wasn't correct. If you lie about your research, then the whole notion of how research is published and how peer review works is compromised. Peer-reviewed research really rests on one fundamental principle, and that's that the people who do it are really honest about their results.
So what happens now?
The strength of peer-reviewed research is that it's published in a public fashion for anybody to see, the methods and results are there for everyone. Then it can, in other people's hands, be repeated. Or not. It's really important to know that labs across the world are trying to repeat his scientific results. And if they can't repeat the results, it will send a clear message about whether Hwang was honest or not. There's also a chance that they can't repeat the results and he was honest about them. Cell culture is tricky stuff, and sometimes stuff that works in one person's hands won't work in another person's hands.
Does this set back embryonic stem cell research?
I think it does. Hwang was out there in the lead, and the embryonic stem cell community was looking to him, thinking that [his] technique was the one that would propel these therapeutic lines made from embryonic stem cells forward. Now that that seems to beat least for the momentnot the case, the embryonic stem cell scientists need to gather themselves together again. I think that we'll have positive results coming fairly soon, in the next six months or so, and that the method that was done in animals will also be done in human lines again.
It's strange to think the South Korean group was going ahead with plans to distribute stem cells around the world through the World Stem Cell Hub while they must have known their data were no goodthey may not really have been able to do what they claimed to be able to do.
It's stunning to me, too. I met with them earlier this year. It was incredible to see this group of scientists. They'd gotten off the plane from South Korea, and Dr. Hwang is quite simply a rock star. I sat with him and his group in the lobby of San Francisco International Airport, and regular South Koreans would come off the gangplank from the jetwithin 20 minutes, we were surrounded by people who wanted his autograph, who wanted to see him. Then to realize all of this was built on a house of cards, if that's the caseit's a pretty sobering thing, to deceive so publicly.
The South Korean government has strongly supported Hwang's research, but the U.S. government is not allowed to fund most embryonic stem cell research. What's the future of such research here?
I'm not a pessimist by nature, but it's very hard for me to see how the current political environment can change in a way that can permit embryonic stem cell research in the United States. It's not just the last five years of George Bush's policythere's a long history of United States policy that has prohibited reproductive research on embryos. Congress, for example, has prohibited research on early embryos since the 1970s.
A lot of the groundbreaking research is coming from laboratories outside the United States.
Even though the South Korean thing is quite a mess right now, that's only one lab out of dozens and dozens of labs in different countries that are working on embryonic stem cell research. Singapore is a very fertile area for this. Israel, Englandthe U.K. in general is moving along very quickly. Northern EuropeSweden, Norwaythey're doing some pretty amazing things. I think the world is going to step up and fill in the gaps. The sad thing is that no one can drive a biomedical research agenda like the United States.