It began with an announcement. Woo Suk Hwang, a scientist from Seoul National University, claimed to have cloned embryonic stem cells from 11 human patients. For those of you who do not know what that means, it was a huge breakthrough towards one day using embryonic stem cells to treat or cure diseases. It could be likened to the discovery of the internal combustion engine in relation to the manufacturing of automobiles. Stem cells could one day be used to help heal spinal cord injuries or cure cancer.
It was enough to earn Hwang a spot in the Scientific American 50 as “Research Leader of the Year”. His work revolutionized the field of therapeutic cloning. “If a time does come when therapeutic cloning becomes the gold standard of care for a variety of diseases, Hwang's innovative and groundbreaking explorations will have paved the way” the Scientific American magazine proclaimed. It was arguably the biggest scientific discovery of the year.
Then along came the ethical concerns. It was revealed that some of the human eggs that were used had come from women who worked in the laboratory with Hwang, leading to the possibility that the donations were coerced. It was then found out that other egg cells had come from paid donors, which is currently not the preferred method of obtainment. Hwang denied the allegations for months in order to, as he said, “Protect the reputations of his co workers”. However, ethical concerns aside, it was still a huge discovery with possibility of future Nobel consideration. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun even opened a World Stem Cell Hub center, billed as a project to put the country at the forefront of cloning research.
After that came the rumors that the data itself was foul. Several of his published micrographs were wrongly labeled as being different cells when in actuality they were the same cell from a different angle. Hwang claimed it to be a publishing error, but that led researchers to question why the cells were so similar and lacked any experimentally induced variation.
It was shortly after that one of his coauthors, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, asked that his name be retracted from the published paper due to doubts about its accuracy. There were allegations that certain parts of the report were fabricated.
Now, another of the coauthors wants his name to be retracted from the paper. Sung Il Roh, a hospital administrator and specialist in fertility studies who worked directly with Hwang, told a South Korean Television network “Professor Hwang admitted to fabrication."
Seoul National University plans to investigate these claims. They “will probe doubts raised about (Hwang's) 2005 thesis first and, if the doubts are confirmed, will replicate experiments," according to a statement released by the university.
Hwang and his team have not yet been reached for comment, but are expected to brief the media early tomorrow.