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University tries to downplay US researcher's role in cloning fraud

Genetic Crossroads
February 23rd, 2006

While Hwang Woo-Suk sinks deeper into disgrace, stem cell researcher Gerald Schatten, the senior author of the now discredited 2005 Science cloning paper, remains a tenured professor and active researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. He has refused to speak publicly about the scandal since it broke last year, and has turned down a request by South Korean prosecutors to come to the country for questioning, saying he will instead answer their 136 questions by email.

Schatten and Hwang

In a new development, a senior researcher on Hwang's disbanded cloning team has accused Schatten of playing a lead role in the fabrication of the stem cell paper. Korean investigators report that the scientist, Kang Sung-Keun, claims that Schatten knew about a crucial cell contamination incident before the appearance of the Science article.

Earlier this month, a University of Pittsburgh panel that investigated Schatten's role in the scandal released a report [PDF] that revealed damning details about his complicity, yet concluded that he was not guilty of scientific misconduct. Instead, the report said, Schatten had committed "research misbehavior"-a newly created category that allowed the university to issue a press release proclaiming his innocence.

The panel was composed of six members, none of whose identities have been released. In the public summary of their report, they acknowledge that "several" of them had collaborated with Schatten on research projects and grants. But, they write, they assured each other in the course of a "frank discussion" that these "natural professional contacts" would not bias them in any way.

What constitutes misbehavior that is not misconduct?

According to the report, Schatten "shirked his responsibility" as senior author in ways that "facilitated the publication of falsified experiments." He failed to look into reports of technical problems in Hwang's lab that should have alerted him to the data fabrications. Though the report does not say so, he must have been aware as well of widely reported suspicions that Hwang had procured eggs in unacceptable ways.

Then, immediately following a 2005 press conference in which the former colleagues touted the supposed cloning breakthrough, Schatten accepted $10,000 in cash from Hwang. He had previously received $30,000 from Hwang, and had asked for another $200,000, which he clearly expected to be forthcoming.

The report does not connect the dots, but the picture it draws is consistent with at least a dishonorable arrangement, and perhaps an outright bribe. Schatten received direct payments, a share of the fame, and a crack at lucrative patents. In exchange, he provided Hwang with the credibility he needed in scientific circles outside South Korea, and turned a blind eye to unethical conduct and cooked results.

The report also contains information that suggests that Schatten may have been maneuvering to shortchange his South Korean colleagues by laying an exclusive claim to the developments in Hwang's laboratory that turned out to have been falsified. Schatten filed a patent application for cloning technology in 2004 without crediting Hwang; as Merrill Goozner points out, the report reveals that he did so during a period in which he was in almost daily email and phone contact with Hwang, and meeting with him frequently. According to the report, Schatten's patent filing "presents claims that likely could not be fulfilled by inventions [he developed alone], but might plausibly be supported by technologies reportedly developed by Dr. Hwang's group between the filings of provisional and actual patents."

The University of Pittsburgh's spin on the panel's findings generated some positive headlines, but was greeted with skepticism even by some within the scientific establishment. Stem cell expert John Gearhart, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, remarked that the phrase "research misbehavior" suggests that the panelists "were really wiggling to find something short of actual misconduct."

And while some US scientists and bioethicists have accepted the story that Schatten was a victim rather than an accomplice of the fraud, others forcefully disagree. In a blog not known for its critical stance toward biotech researchers or companies, Stanford University's David Magnus wrote:

"Schatten took credit for work that was not his, lied about his role to journals, equivocated to the investigative committee to avoid blame, failed to do due diligence as a scientist and an author and took money and credit to further his career in a way that made him particularly vulnerable to criticism. He may not have been the one who walked in and robbed the bank. But he was the getaway driver who did not ask why his friends wanted him to drive away when they ran out of the bank."

Related articles:

"Scientist Schatten Key to Stem Cell Scandal," The Korea Times (February 19)

"Hwang aide says Schatten knew it all," The Korea Times (February 16)

"Hwang to Sue US Collaborator Over Stem Cell Patent," Chosun Ilbo (February 14)

"­US Stem Cell Researcher Rebuked," Washington Post (February 11)


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