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Cloning Scientist No Longer Supreme

Genetic Crossroads
March 29th, 2006

Despite multiple investigations into the Korean cloning scandals, it is not yet completely clear either what happened or what the final consequences will be. Authorities at Seoul National University (SNU) and elsewhere seem to be focusing the blame entirely on Hwang Woo-suk, while other researchers involved in the affair are being lightly punished and little mentioned.

Hwang has been very much under siege in recent weeks. A disciplinary committee at SNU fired him and cut his pension in half. The Korean Society for Molecular and Cellular Biology expelled him, and the Health Ministry removed his license to conduct embryonic stem cell research (which means that no one is allowed to do human cloning research in South Korea at present).

Hwang Woo-suk

On March 17, Hwang appeared in person before the committee to admit wrong-doing and apologize. "I did not follow the procedures that a scientist should follow and I was driven by greed," he said. Two days later, the Ministry of Science and Technology, which had suspended Hwang's funding last December, formally stripped him of the title "Supreme Scientist," which was worth up to $3 million a year for five years.

Perhaps it is understandable that the one who got the glory also gets the blame, but there are worrying signs of a concerted effort to pin the rap on Hwang alone. Other members of his SNU team were disciplined far more lightly, with suspensions or pay cuts covering only one to three months. This includes people who were actively involved in faking data, delivering illegally obtained ova, and buying silence.

There was a little good news for the beleaguered Hwang, however: Further analysis of his original stem cell line indicates that it was not the result of parthenogenesis, as previously announced by SNU investigators, but was indeed derived from a cloned embryo. But the line "would be of little use for experiments or therapeutic applications because it was damaged too severely," according to Prof. Seo Jeong-sun, a neutral expert. Hwang's remaining academic supporters say the line is important as a "proof of concept."

Hwang also retains some support among the Korean public. His most vociferous fans are even advocating violence against his critics. Both the President and the Dean of Research Affairs at SNU have been physically assaulted by Hwang enthusiasts in recent weeks. The mob that dragged the Dean out of her car was yelling, "Protect the patent! Resume the research!" Hwang supporters also tried to break up an academic conference on the scandal led by the National Association of Professors for Democratic Society being held at SNU.

This fanaticism seems to be derived from intense nationalism as well as hopes for cures, a potentially explosive mixture. According to an English-speaking South Korean blogger, Hwang's supporters have denounced the public figures "involved in the Hwang investigation as traitors, and claim the former cloning star is the victim of a vast conspiracy led be the United States, which they believe is trying to steal Korean cloning technology."

Hwang supporter protests

There is still a possibility that Korean authorities will take a broader and more useful position. The National Bioethics Committee is yet to report, and the Korean Society for Molecular and Cellular Biology is still considering sanctions on the others involved.

At least two sets of prosecutors are continuing to investigate both the fraud and the misappropriation of funds, and may announce their findings in April. Intriguingly, the anonymous young scientists whose postings on the Internet message board at the Biological Research Information Center (BRIC) pointed out the duplicated photographs that were the first proof of fraud will write their own report, also due in April.

NIH Asked to Review Pittsburgh Scientist's Stem Cell Funding

The University of Pittsburgh is facing Congressional calls for re-evaluation of $16 million in NIH grants that seem to have been awarded to Hwang's co-author, Gerald Schatten, on the basis of the research that is now known to be fraudulent. The NIH has refused to comment on grounds of confidentiality, and Schatten has refused to speak publicly about the fraud since it was revealed last November. Korean prosecutors are at last report still trying to get testimony from him, if only by email.

According to recent news accounts, Schatten "was involved in laboratory-related misconduct investigations at both his previous university jobs." He was cleared in the first case, which involved his receipt of eggs for research that had been illegally procured by fertility doctors at the University of California-Irvine. In the second case, at the Oregon National Primate Research Center, he was investigated for three "miscommunications" that included a "misstatement" to the committee about his research work, but "remedied" the problem "in a relatively short period of time."

The Star System in Science

Meanwhile, Ian Wilmut, who became world-famous as the "father of Dolly," has admitted in court that he did not exactly clone the first sheep. Asked whether the statement "I did not create Dolly" was accurate, Wilmut said, "Yes." He explained that he had a "non-trivial" supervisory role, but that "66 per cent" of the credit belonged to his official co-author, Keith Campbell, who left Roslin soon after the event, reportedly unhappy
at the assignment of credit.

Ian Wilmut and Hwang Woo-suk

Other workers suggest that the new version still overstates Wilmut's role, and note that "It's been an ongoing argument since it happened. Everyone has their own different set of facts."

The Roslin sheep certainly did get cloned, as did the Seoul dog and before that Korean cows and pigs. Wilmut, like Hwang, has moved on to attempt human embryonic cloning. This caused noisy protests last year in Germany, when he was awarded the Paul Ehrlich Prize for his work cloning sheep, which will not, despite some early reports, be rescinded. Wilmut, also like Hwang, seems to have benefited from the endemic tendency to focus praise on the individual at the top of the hierarchy. He has a book, After Dolly, a Guide to Stem-Cell Technology, scheduled for publication in July, so there will likely be further discussion of the responsibility for credit and blame.

Similar troubles over publicity and the allocation of credit seem to have broken up the UK's other research cloning team, at Newcastle University. The group's chief scientist, Miodrag Stojkovic, recently moved to a new research job to Spain, at least partly in protest of the decision to rush the announcement of a successfully cloned human embryo to the media in order to match the timing of Hwang's 2005 paper. Stojkovic says that the press conference was planned without his knowledge, or that of other team members, by his former collaborator Alison Murdoch, and that such announcements violate good scientific practice. In addition, Stojkovic contests the extent of Murdoch's contributions to the effort.


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