Misadventures in Cloning
Woo-Suk Hwang's American collaborator.
Feb 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 20 • By PAMELA R. WINNICK
ON JANUARY 12, THE renowned journal Science retracted two articles written by South Korean scientist Woo-Suk Hwang, one published in February 2004 and a related piece--this one with an American "senior author"--published in May 2005. Both papers detailed an astonishing breakthrough in cloning research: Not only had a human embryo been cloned, but--far more significantly for regenerative medicine--stem cells had been extracted from the clones. Researchers hoped that such genetically identical, patient-specific stem cells could someday be implanted in sick people to regenerate cells destroyed by Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, spinal-cord injury, and a variety of other degenerative diseases, benefiting millions.
But it turned out that Hwang's breakthrough was all a fraud, among the most egregious in the history of science. Hwang has been repudiated by respectable scientists and is facing criminal charges in his own country. What is notable is that his American collaborator, Dr. Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and its related Magee-Women's Research Institute, has managed thus far to come out of this mess unscathed.
And why not? It was Schatten, after all, who raised the alarm about Hwang, ostensibly taking the high road while also distancing himself from the miscreant. In November, Schatten informed Science that he had just learned that Hwang unethically paid women to provide him their eggs. Then, in December, six months after the piece in Science, Schatten announced that Hwang's work itself was a fabrication. He cited his own "careful re-evaluations of published figures and tables" as well as unidentified "problematic information" he had received.
Why he hadn't conducted a "careful evaluation" of the research before the paper was published remains unclear. Nonetheless, Schatten has been portrayed by the media and a nervous University of Pittsburgh as a mere adviser to Hwang, one who, when he learned of the fabrication, promptly exposed it. Schatten himself declines to speak to the press while a university investigation is underway.
But questions remain. Schatten, 56, who has a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, is vice chair for research development and professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences and cell biology and physiology at the medical school. He began his collaboration with Hwang in late 2003, when, during a tour of the South Korean lab, Hwang told him that his team had created a human clone. Hwang persuaded Schatten to sign on to the 2005 paper. The two also collaborated with the South Korean lab on animal-cloning research, producing a cloned Afghan named "Snuppy," as they reported in the British journal Nature in August 2005. Though some in the research community believe that Snuppy might also have been a fraud, that work so far has not been exposed as faulty.
Similarly, some question whether a responsible scientist would have collaborated with Hwang to begin with. Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology, a Worcester, Massachusetts, biotech company that researches human cloning, was suspicious of Hwang's methods from the outset because, he says, the chemicals used would have killed the egg cells. He was not alone.
After Hwang's 2004 article was published, an unnamed "stem cell expert" told United Press International, "I've checked now with four or five [stem cell scientists], and no one believes the results." Researchers demanded a "verification study"--a repeat of the experiment--but Hwang refused. Some Korean scientists were equally uneasy. "Many of us didn't trust him," a biologist at the Korea Advanced Institute told the New York Times recently. Many posted questions on their websites, only to find themselves rebuked by Hwang's adoring South Korean public.
Even without the aroma of controversy, it's unusual, scientists say, for a researcher to sign on as senior author of a paper when the research is conducted in another lab--especially one on the other side of the world. The editor of Science, Dr. Donald Kennedy, says he never signs a paper unless he has himself conducted the research. Lanza won't even sign a paper based on research in his own lab unless he has personally cross-checked every step. In any event, most agree, once Schatten signed on as senior author, he had an obligation to make sure the research was aboveboard and accurate. What explains his failure to do so?
Some scientists who have met Hwang testify to his mesmerizing charm. Others view Schatten as an opportunist eager to share a Nobel Prize with Hwang. As early as April 2004, Schatten and two Pittsburgh colleagues applied for a U.S. patent on a procedure for cloning primates, including humans (although Schatten's own attempt to clone a monkey ended in failure). At the very least, Schatten showed a marked eagerness to place himself at the cutting edge of animal and human cloning.
Last year, for the first time, Schatten took his high-level seminar on stem cells to Stanford, in the wake of Proposition 71, the measure by which California voters allocated $3 billion for human embryonic stem cell research. Schatten told the Sacramento Bee in June, "I wanted to run a course at a place where people would be sitting on the edges of their seats, knowing that they had a constitutional right to do the most exciting medical research out there."
The title of the seminar was "Frontiers in Human Embryonic Stem Cells." As Schatten told the Bee, "When we say 'frontiers,' we mean all of the frontiers: scientific and medical frontiers, also the religious frontier, the legal frontier, the financial frontier and the career frontier and the political frontier. You can just go on and on."
Schatten's present predicament is not his first brush with professional embarrassment. While he was a researcher at the University of Wisconsin in 1994, a fertility clinic at the University of California, Irvine, supplied him with human eggs that had been illegally extracted without the women's consent. An investigation by the University of Wisconsin determined that Schatten had been provided fraudulent documents certifying the provenance of the eggs, and he was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Acutely conscious of its public image, the University of Pittsburgh has named a mostly in-house team to examine Schatten's relationship with Hwang, including the Snuppy article. Five of the six members of the committee are Pittsburgh professors. Still, a spokeswoman says its findings will be made public.
A second investigation has been launched by the National Institutes of Health to make sure that none of its $6.4 million grant to Schatten for animal cloning was used in violation of the ban on federal funding of human cloning. Hwang's human-cloning work was funded by South Korea.
Says spokesman Don Ralbovsky, "NIH has initiated a review of activity related to NIH-supported research conducted at the Magee-Women's Research Institute (MWRI) in order to ensure that federal regulations and policies were followed and correctly reported. MWRI is providing additional information to NIH at this time. We cannot have any further comment until the process is completed."
Meanwhile, life goes on for Schatten. He recently sold his $600,000 home in the upscale, Breezewood section of Pittsburgh, but calls to his office suggest that he remains at the hospital. He is scheduled to be the keynote speaker this April at a meeting of the American Society of Andrology, although at least one colleague has urged that he be disinvited. The announced subject of his talk was recently changed--from human embryonic stem cells to assisted reproduction.
Pamela R. Winnick, an attorney and former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is the author of A Jealous God: Science's Crusade Against Religion.