South Korea faces blow to stem-cell prowess

Investigators are examining whether the country's leading stem-cell scientist fabricated data.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

For months, South Koreans basked in the glory of a scientist whose renown seemed to show the world they could achieve the same stunning success in scientific research as in commerce and manufacturing.

Now, however, the revelation of errors and distortions in what had appeared as an epochal breakthrough in the cloning of human stem cells has shocked the country. Probing questions are being asked here about creativity and innovation in a society dominated by a traditional seniority system and demands for immediate commercial success.

At the center of the debate is veterinary surgeon Hwang Woo-Suk, who gained superstar status among Koreans in 2004 when he announced that he had cloned stem cells from humans. Then, in May, he won acclaim globally when the prestigious American journal Science published a paper purporting to explain how he and his team had cloned 11 stem cell lines from anonymous donors.

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"We really believed in him in so many different ways," says Jung Kyung Ah, an office administrator. "We really think he's a big scientist in Korean history."

Dr. Hwang passionately defends his basic work as valid, and has stated that a probe currently under way will soon bolster his case. However, he admits "fatal errors" that have forced him to ask the journal Science to withdraw the paper. Earlier, Hwang's primary collaborator, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, had asked Science to remove his own name as senior author, citing concerns about both the validity of the data and the use of researchers in Hwang's laboratory as donors.

Hwang admits that the microscopic photographs of some of the 11 stem cell lines that he first claimed to have obtained were duplicated - rather than showing what were purportedly distinct cell lines, some photos were of the same cell line. He now says that he only had eight stem cell lines.Other scientists go further, accusing Hwang of fabricating some photographs.

Hwang also says that some of the stem cell lines were contaminated, meaning they could no longer be used for scientific purposes. However, he claims he is certain that two lines survived, and that these lines will show that his work was valid.

Beyond questions of science, Hwang has been damaged by revelations of ethical violations. Some women who donated eggs last year were not only his researchers but were paid for their sacrifice - severe ethical breaches.

Hwang's immediate future rests this week on the findings of investigators sifting through his research at his laboratory at Seoul National University and interviewing people associated with the project. The findings could launch investigations into his previous breakthrough work, including claims of the first cloned human embryos and the first cloned dog.

While the ruckus played out in press conferences, statements, interviews, and a television exposé charging that all he had done was "a sham," Hwang has sunk by degrees from national hero to martyr and finally, in the view of some, to scientific charlatan.

"I was so shocked," says Chang Sung Eun, a marketing manager. "Who could imagine they would produce false reports in a world-known magazine? All people say it's a shame for Korea."

Nor is the assault on Hwang's credibility just a matter of emotional debate. It also undermines the prestige of a government that has supported his work with grants of $27 million this year and $3 million annually for five years.

Hwang's research "grew into a state project with government backing and then became the people's project," says a commentary in Chosun Ilbo, Korea's largest-selling newspaper. "Scientists "kept mum because they saw hope in one of their own becoming a national hero, and the government was happy to bask in reflected glory without asking too many questions."

In the initial outpouring of popular support after Hwang's research was first questioned, President Roh Moo Hyun, anxious to bolster his own sagging popularity, conveyed "solace for the pain" inflicted on Hwang and his team and urged him to return to the lab from which he had fled amid questions about abuses.

Park Ky Young, a presidential science adviser who visited Hwang's lab, insists through a spokesman that Hwang told her about problems and she was "very disappointed that the stem cells died" - a result of their contamination. However, she defended Hwang by noting that "contamination often happens in the course of cultivation."

Many, however, believe the real problem lies in deeply inbred attitudes toward scientific research.

"We don't have anyone doing research or inventing anything," says Albert Kim, a retired economics official. "It's embarrassing for people involved in research asking how much you are going to pay. There's no guarantee. Once you invent something, the investor takes all the benefit."

At the same time, Korea laboratory chiefs are notorious for demanding loyalty from juniors - and taking credit for papers they may have only read briefly. Papers are often signed by multiple contributors, some of whom the lead scientist recognizes as a collegial favor.

"You have to do whatever the lab chief says," says a young graduate student in a university laboratory. "You have no power over anything even if you do all the work. I know what happens in my lab, and I can see what happened under Dr. Hwang."

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