Supreme Scientist - Controversies

Controversies

See also: Scientific misconduct

Until late November 2005, Hwang was criticized only for unpublicized ethical violations. Colleagues and media outlets asserted that he had paid female donors for egg donations and that he had received donations from two junior researchers, both of which were violations. Later controversies would center around scientific misconduct.

His team, which cloned the first human embryo to use for research, said they had used the same technology to create batches of embryonic stem cells from nine patients. According to Hwang, the result was much more efficient than they had hoped. Hwang's integrity as a researcher was again put in doubt when it was revealed that "PD Su-cheop" scheduled a follow-up report questioning his achievement published in Science in June 2005, which stated he had cloned 11 lines of embryonic stem cells. This caused furious backlash among many South Koreans, and the reaction only intensified when it was discovered that Kim Sun-Jong, one of Hwang's researchers from MizMedi, was coerced by illegal means to testify against Hwang. As a result, the scheduled broadcast was canceled and the network even made a public apology to the nation, everyone more or less operating under the assumption that the show was at fault and not Hwang. Yet, other news outlets began to question Hwang's claims.

Close scrutiny revealed that several of the photos of purportedly different cells were in fact photos of the same cell. Hwang responded that these additional photos were accidentally included and that there was no such duplication in the original submission to Science. This was later confirmed by the journal.

Researchers raised questions about striking similarities between the DNA profiles of the cloned cells. Then collaborator Gerald Schatten asked Science to remove his name from the paper, stating as a reason that there were "allegations from someone involved with the experiments that certain elements of the report may be fabricated".

In the midst of national confusion, Hwang disappeared from public sight, to be hospitalized days later for alleged stress-related fatigue, while public opinion gradually began to turn against Hwang with even the major Korean companies who pulled their support from "PD Su-Cheop" reportedly now less than pleased with Hwang. Days later, Hwang started going to his laboratory while requesting Seoul National University to officially conduct a probe to the allegations surrounding him.

The scandal took a dramatic turn on December 15, when Roh Sung-il, who collaborated on that paper, stated to media outlets that nine of those eleven lines had been faked; specifically, DNA tests illustrated that those nine lines shared identical DNA, implying that they had come from the same source. Roh stated that "Professor Hwang admitted to fabrication," and that he, Hwang, and another co–author had asked Science to withdraw the paper. Adding fuel to the fire, MBC broadcasted the content of the canceled PD Su-cheop show, which substantiated Roh's claim.

On the same day, ABC news reported that Science had not yet received an official request from Hwang to withdraw the paper, and it had refused to remove Schatten's name from the paper, stating, "No single author, having declared at the time of submission his full and complete confidence in the contents of the paper, can retract his name unilaterally, after publication."

Several prominent scientists, including Ian Wilmut, who cloned Dolly the sheep in 1996, and Bob Lanza, a cloning expert based in Worcester, Massachusetts, did call on Hwang to submit his paper to an outside group for independent analysis. Lanza noted, "You can't fake the results if they're carried out by an independent group. I think this simple test could put the charges to rest."

Two major press conferences were held on Korean networks on December 16, one with Hwang followed by the other with his former colleague, Roh Sung-il. Hwang started his press conference by claiming that the technology to make stem cells exists, which is not an explicit statement that the stem cell lines he featured in his paper to Science were not fakes. He, however, acknowledged the falsifications of research data in the paper, attributing them to unrecoverable "artificial mistakes." He said that there was a problem with the original lines caused by contamination, and if he were given ten more days he could re-create the stem cell lines. He accused Dr. Kim Sun-Jong, a former collaborator, of "switching" some of the stem cell lines.

Despite Hwang's claim, in another press conference held only minutes later, Roh Sung-il rebutted Hwang's accusation, saying Hwang was blackmailing MizMedi and Kim Sun-jong. He maintained that at least nine of the eleven stem cell lines were fakes and that Hwang is simply untrustworthy.

Public opinion appears to be that Hwang was dancing around the issue of whether his work was faked or not.

"Roh Sung-il, chairman of the board at Mizmedi Hospital, told KBS television that Hwang had agreed to ask the journal Science to withdraw the paper, published in June to international acclaim. Roh was one of the co-authors of the article that detailed how individual stem cell colonies were created for 11 patients through cloning. Roh also told MBC television that Hwang had pressured a former scientist at his lab to fake data to make it look like there were 11 stem cell colonies. In a separate report, a former researcher told MBC that Hwang ordered him to fabricate photos to make it appear there were 11 separate colonies from only three. University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald Schatten has already asked that Science remove him as the senior author of the report, citing questions about the paper's accuracy. Seoul National University announced this week it would conduct an internal probe into Hwang's research."

Some scientists have started questioning Hwang's earlier work published in Science in February 2004 in which he claimed to have cloned embryonic stem cells. Maria Biotech head Park Se-pill said, ``Up until now, I have believed Hwang did derive cloned embryonic stem cells although he admitted to misconduct in his follow-up paper on patient-specific stem cells...Now, I am not sure whether the cloned stem cell really existed.’’

On July 26, 2006, Hwang said in testimony that he spent part of 500 million won in private donations in attempts to clone extinct Russian mammoths and Korean tigers.

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