The field of stem cell research has suffered a humiliating setback with the revelation that its most prominent pioneer committed massive fraud.
An investigation into Professor Hwang Woo-suk found yesterday that he had fabricated most of his claims regarding stem cells deri-ved from cloned human embryos, which could have led to cures for conditions such as Parkinson's and heart disease. The investigation by Seoul National University in South Korea found that Dr Hwang, its most feted scientist, committed scientific fraud on an unprecedented scale.
The scientist claimed to have cloned the first human embryo in 2004 and followed this up a year later with a claim that he had derived individually tailored stem cells from a further 11 cloned embryos. Neither claim was true. Dr Hwang instead fabricated data and manipulated photographs to fool the world that his laboratory had made decisive scientific breakthroughs.
Instead of cloning human embryos, Dr Hwang used embryos created by the normal process of sexual fertilisation. He also failed to produce any evidence for "lines" of stored stem cells derived from cloned embryos.
The revelations of scientific fraud have dented the credibility of the entire field of therapeutic cloning, which once promised to treat incurable conditions.
David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, said Dr Hwang's lies vindicated the argument that therapeutic cloning was a mirage based on scientific deceit. "So-called therapeutic cloning is a technological fantasy and it is high time that the scientific establishment came clean and admitted the fact," he said.
British stem cell scientists tried to limit the damage to the reputation of their field. "DNA analysis these days is so routine that this fraud ranks almost as a schoolboy prank," said Professor Malcolm Alison, a cell scientist at Queen Mary, University of London.
Nonetheless, Dr Hwang's "prank" fooled dozens of specialists who had pored over his two papers published in the journal Science and had heaped praise on his achievements.
"All of us who admired Hwang are deeply saddened by this revelation," said Stephen Minger of King's College London. Professor Alison Murdoch of Newcastle University, a member of the only team to have actually cloned an early-stage human embryo, said the revelations were a setback for the entire field. "It is a major blow that human therapeutic cloning now looks to be much more of a challenge than his recent reports led us to believe.".
The investigation into Dr Hwang found that just about the only thing that was true about his research was his claim to have produced the world's first cloned dog, an Afghan hound called Snuppy. It found that Dr Hwang repeatedly lied when he said he had not used eggs from his own female students, and he had even accompanied one of them to the hospital where the extraction procedure was performed. The biggest blow was the realisation that neither of the two Science studies can be trusted because each is littered with fabricated data.
The investigation committee said not all the wrongdoings of the Hwang team had been identified and a criminal investigation may follow into the misuse of public funds. It added: "However, that the publications are fabricated alone mandates a severe penalty by the academia. The young scientists who courageously pointed out the fallacy and precipitated the initiation of this investigation are our hope for the future."
Professor Hwang was unavailable for comment.Reuse content