POSTED 12 JANUARY 2006
Scientific fraud of the century?
On Jan. 10, Seoul National University announced that both landmark scientific papers by veterinarian Woo Suk Hwang were groundless. Despite his claims, Hwang did not clone human embryos and extract stem cells, and it's not even clear how hard he tried. "Dr. Hwang's team cannot avoid taking grave responsibility for fabricating its papers and concealing data," said Chung Myunghee, the head of the university's investigatory panel, according to the New York Times, Jan. 10, 2006.
Photo: Lee Jin-man/AP
On Jan. 11, Chung Un-chan, the head of the university, said: "I, as the president of the university, sincerely apologize to the public." Hwang's fraud was, he said, a "blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country" and a "criminal act in academia."
Hwang wasn't content to dupe the Seoul Journal of Stem Cells or the Transpacific Reproduction Quarterly. Instead, he targeted top-flight scientific mag Science for the slickest hoax in a generation. Science has now withdrawn both papers and announced that it will try to tighten its editorial policies. Despite the high visibility of stem cell research, Hwang was not fingered until 22 months after his first paper was published.
Hwang is the front-runner for the 2006 Nobel Prize in Scientific Fraud. The Why Files has received an advance draft of his acceptance speech:
"Tonight, I want to thank the gulled and the gullible. I want to thank the journal Science, which validated my 'work', and gave me a venerable platform to rock the scientific world. I want to thank Seoul National University, and the Republic of Korea, which believed strongly enough in my work to ignore mutterings of fraud and ethical lapses from colleagues and underlings. Gullibility among people who should have known better turned me into a globe-trotting scientific celeb -- equal parts movie star and medical pioneer, all because I learned to grow tiny colonies of living hope for the halt and the lame.
"Most of all, I want to thank the patients. The elders frozen by Parkinson's Disease, the diabetics with their heart attacks and amputations, the desperate grandparents losing their minds to Alzheimer's disease, the paralyzed nine-year-old in the wheelchair. We all know the public demand for stem cells reflects the hope that these versatile cells can restore the dead tissue that cause so much misery in so many horrid diseases. Otherwise, who would have noticed in 2004, when I wrote about making stem cells from a cloned human embryo? Otherwise, who would have cared in 2005, when I described 11 colonies of stem cells, each an identical twin to a patient with spinal cord injury, diabetes or an immune disease?
"So in the name of scientific progress and health, in the name of regenerative medicine, and utterly immune to pride, greed and ambition, I humbly accept the Nobel Prize for Scientific Fraud. Thank you. Good night and good hoax!"
Okay, so Hwang may never reach Stockholm, and we may never get to savor these moments of honesty from a researcher who seems legally divorced from the truth. But the fact remains that Hwang pulled off a massive fraud. He published astonishing news in a highly controversial, closely-watched field, in the most prominent scientific publication, and he nearly got away with it.
A real who-dunnit!
Until last month, Hwang's two reports had put South Korea on the scientific map as a center of cell biology. In February, 2004, Hwang claimed he had made embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos (see "Evidence of a Pluripotent..." in the bibliography). In May, 2005, Hwang reported using the same technique to make embryonic stem cells based on cells taken of sick people (see "Patient-Specific..." in the bibliography).
Together, Hwang's reports seemed a breakthrough in the field of "regenerative medicine," the quest to cure disease by patterning young, versatile cells on a patient's own cells. Many diseases, after all, are caused by a decline in a certain type of cell -- in the brain, heart, lung, kidney or pancreas. Replacing these cells with cells acceptable to the body could lead to miraculous cures.
The press noticed: "The latest headlines in embryonic stem cell research come from South Korea," wrote USA Today. "Scientists there announced last week that they had used cloning techniques to create stem cells that genetically match sick patients, making rejection by the body less likely. The breakthrough was a reminder of the research's potential to regenerate damaged organs and treat diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's" (see "Time to Put..." in the bibliography). In 2004, Hwang was one of the "People who mattered" to Time magazine. In 2005, he was one of the "Scientific American 50".
Scientists noticed: the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that a stem cell conference in San Francisco would "focus on the cloning report from South Korea" (see "Stem Cell Researchers..." in the bibliography). By January, 2006, 204 scientific papers had cited the two bogus Hwang papers, according to the ISI Web of Knowledge. That meant that hundreds of scientists may have been barking up the wrong tree, or throwing good money after bad. Pick your cliche -- by offering a flim-flam recipe, and by diverting time, attention and money from techniques that could work, Hwang added months to the timeline for real results from stem cell research.
Patients and their parents noticed: One father -- an MD -- wrote to The New York Times that "Millions were heartened to learn of the advances made by the South Koreans in human embryo cloning to provide stem cells for medical research... I told my 10-year-old diabetic son that it was an important step toward curing his disease." (see "A Critical Juncture..." in the bibliography)
As the first scientist to pattern stem cells on adult human cells, Hwang became a national hero in South Korea. This October, with the nation's president present, Hwang opened the "World Stem Cell Hub," where researchers from around the globe would come to use his techniques and build on his successes.
How did Humpty Dumpty come tumbling down?
Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive