The Magazine

Another Cloning "Breakthrough"

The world's first phony stem cells

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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In February 2004, Woo--Suk Hwang made world headlines when he claimed to have cloned human embryos using a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, and then to have derived a line of stem cells from the embryos that could be used for medical research. Enthusiasm for this first "successful" experiment in human cloning, published in the prestigious peer--reviewed journal Science, was tempered by the inefficiency of the process: It took 242 human eggs to get just one embryonic stem cell line.

That problem seemed solved when, last May, Hwang published another article in Science asserting that he had again successfully cloned human embryos, this time deriving 11 stem cell lines and, moreover, reporting an astounding 10--fold increase in egg--use efficiency. Cloning proponents were giddy, declaring that the age of therapeutic cloning was nigh. Soon, they predicted, sick patients would be able to clone embryos made of their own tissue, from which, in turn, genetically matched stem cells could be derived for use in regenerative medical treatments.

Hwang's paper was greeted joyously by cloning advocates and their media allies in the United States for another reason: The research had been done in South Korea. Hwang's "breakthrough" therefore proved that the United States was "falling behind" in stem cell research. Hence, they argued, President Bush's policy limiting federal funding of embryonic stem cell research to lines created before August 9, 2001, must be overturned to permit American research to flourish.

Meanwhile, Hwang was lauded internationally as a genius and embraced by his countrymen as a national hero. The South Korean government created a postage stamp in his honor, depicting a figure leaping out of a wheelchair. (Never mind that such therapeutic benefits remained hypothetical; never mind that an unjustly neglected South Korean colleague had already restored partial mobility and feeling to a paralyzed woman using umbilical cord blood stem cells that require no cloning and no sacrificed embryos.) Hwang looked like a Nobel laureate in waiting.

Then the roof caved in. In mid--November, Hwang's American research partner, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, severed ties with him, complaining that the South Korean had purchased the human eggs used in his experiments-in violation of ethical canons requiring that they be donated-and lied about it. Then came word that some of the photographs depicting the stem cell lines that had accompanied Hwang's 2005 paper were duplicates, not originals. But this didn't seem too serious. Science claimed it was a production error.

Shortly after that, however, came rumors, followed by open accusations, that Hwang had committed research fraud. A junior researcher said that rather than Science being to blame for publishing the wrong photos, Hwang had actually forced him to submit duplicates to make it appear that his experiments had succeeded beyond their actual merit. Another of Hwang's colleagues claimed that the second experiment had required hundreds more eggs than reported. If true, it would mean that the egg efficiency problem with human therapeutic cloning remains unsolved.

But this was all a prelude to the real drama: On December 15, Roh Sung Il, one of Hwang's 2005 Science coauthors, charged that 9 of their 11 stem cell lines were faked, and that the remaining two lines might not exist at all. South Korean scientists, academics, and media clamored for independent verification of all of Hwang's work. At first, Hwang's lab stonewalled. Then Hwang held a press conference, and matters became even more confused.

His responses were chaotic, his story continually evolving. He denied faking the research. But he also acknowledged that only three of the embryonic stem cell lines had passed a necessary test to prove their viability. Then, sounding like Captain Queeg, he claimed that he was the victim of a nefarious plot in which someone, somehow, had switched his cloned stem cell lines with embryonic stem cells derived from in vitro fertilization embryos. Finally, he asserted some of the stem cell lines had been destroyed by fungi, but that he was thawing five frozen samples to prove he had actually created cloned embryos and derived stem cells from them.

Last Friday, however, all pretense of innocence was dropped, when an investigatory panel from Hwang's university declared that at least 9 of the 11 stem cell lines were faked. (The other two are still under investigation.) The ruse apparently involved splitting an original cell sample into different test tubes and then claiming one cell line was from the patient and one from a clone. In this way, Hwang somehow convinced one of the world's most prestigious journals-and through it, the world-that he was a historic figure in science. Hwang resigned his university post in disgrace.