Professor Hwang Woo-Suk was a hero in his field. While American scientists were caught up in the ethics of stem-cell research, Hwang and his Korean colleagues were making one advance after another.
Or so it seemed. This morning Hwang resigned from Seoul National University.
“I sincerely apologize to the people for creating shock and disappointment,” he said.
In June Hwang et al had published a paper in the journal Science, reporting that they had created 11 stem cell “lines,” or cultures, to match 11 potential patients — a potential first step to curing such diseases as diabetes and M.S. The university now says he may have created two, if that. And it’s not an innocent mistake, it’s “deliberate fabrication.”
This afternoon Science put out this statement:
“Science has now learned from the Seoul National University investigation committee, as transmitted by the head of the investigation, that some of the results of the 2005 Hwang et al paper are the result of substantial research misconduct on the part of the authors. These involve portions of the DNA fingerprinting data, an exaggeration of the number of teratomas actually formed by embryonic stem cell lines, and unverifiable claims about the number of lines actually created.
“We are continuing to move forward with a formal retraction of the 2005 paper. If a statement is not provided in a timely manner by the authors or the investigation committee on behalf of Seoul National University, we will move forward with an editorial retraction.”
I did an interview with Brooks Hanson, a deputy editor of the journal. "One scientist doesn’t cloud a field, and there’s an enormous amount of very dedicated and hardworking people working on these problems," he said.
But there were other scientists, nervous about going on camera, who said they were worried, on two grounds:
– Hwang’s wrongdoing gives ammunition to groups who oppose stem-cell research on moral grounds. Those groups have been pretty quiet in the last couple of weeks; one scientist suggested they’re following the tried-and-true strategy of letting one’s opponents self-destruct on their own.
– There may be a message here about the potential of stem cells. If Hwang was alone in many of his successes—and turns out to have been faking them — perhaps it’s because stem cells are harder to work with than researchers had thought. So their potential may be smaller than their champions had hoped.