Credited for being the first scientist to successfully clone human embryonic stem cells and harvest new stem cells through a technique called somatic cell nuclear transfer, Korean scientist Hwang Woo-Suk made headlines worldwide.
For the scientific community and eager stem-cell research proponents, this news meant that the prospect of cloning stem cells specific to a patient’s genes in order to develop improved medical treatments was finally (and about time) in view.
It held within it the possibility of curing prevalent diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. It was a medical milestone.
Woo-Suk became nothing short of a national hero in Korea for his research. It launched Korea at the forefront of international stem-cell research, shifting the title from England and the United States.
In return, the government named him ‘top scientist,’ providing him with any necessary additional funding in addition to his two new $43 million labs and $3 million budget.
He was offered a diplomat to ease his international contacts, given free first-class flights courtesy of Korean Air and, my personal favorite, honored with a postage stamp depicting a silhouetted man jumping from his wheelchair to embrace another person.
One by one, however Woo-Suk’s floor fell through as major allegations of fabrication surfaced.
In November came accusations that the pictures depicting stem-cell lines in Woo-Suk’s 2005 paper published in the prestigious scientific journal ‘Science’ were duplicated.
Insisting that these discrepancies were merely publishing errors, Woo-Suk’s credibility remained intact.
Next, however, came the news that Wook-Suk had deliberately lied about the human eggs utilized in his research. Instead of following the regulation that permitted only donated eggs, Woo-Suk performed his experiment on human eggs he had purchased.
Then, on Dec. 15, came the third strike. Roh Sung Il, a co-author of Woo-Suk’s paper, charged that nine out of the 11 stem cells had been falsified to accredit more success to the research than had actually resulted.
To address the stampede of accusations, Woo-Suk arranged a press conference offering an even less convincing excuse through circular, insubstantial explanations.
He denied accusations that his research had been fabricated, yet also admitted that only three of the stem cells had passed tests that proved their viability.
Woo-Suk lost his last strip of innocence when an investigating panel assembled by Seoul National University revealed that, in fact, Il’s accusations were correct.
Nine out of the 11 stem cells were faked, while the remaining two are still currently under investigation.
Additionally, ‘Woo-Suk’s research team admitted that there were no embryonic stem cells which it claimed it created,’ said SNU senior staff Lee Wang-jae. Woo-Suk resigned his position in late December, after the announcement, and went into seclusion.
Despite the letdown of Woo-Suk debacle, it opens opportunities to re-examine the unanswered questions shoved hastily aside amidst the ‘breakthrough’s’ excited hoopla.
Evidently, the issue of ethics must be raised