SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA--Seoul National University (SNU) researcher Woo Suk Hwang submitted his resignation today after an internal inquiry by a university panel found that he deliberately fabricated much of the data in a groundbreaking stem cell paper published by Science.
Roe Jung Hye, dean of SNU's office of research affairs, issued the panel's preliminary report today, which said that out of the 11 stem cell lines Hwang claimed to have created in the paper, only two existed when the manuscript was submitted on 15 March. Four lines had died on 9 January because of contamination, three were observed only in the form of colonies, not stem cell lines, and no records exist for two lines. She said the university has requested DNA fingerprinting tests on the two existing stem cell lines to see whether they are actually from embryonic clones.
The panel also found that the DNA fingerprint traces conducted on the stem cell lines had been manipulated to make it seem as if the lines were tailored to specific patients. The panel said that for each of the nine stem cell lines that didn't exist, the team sent two samples from the donor to be tested rather than a sample from the donor and a sample of cells into which the donor's DNA had supposedly been transplanted. The panel also discovered that a key claim in the paper, that only 185 eggs were used to create the 11 stem cell lines, was false. The investigators said the actual number of eggs used is far larger, but they have not yet determined an exact figure.
"Based on these findings, the data in the 2005 paper cannot be seen as innocent errors," Roe said. "We can only see it as intentional falsification in exaggerating the outcomes of the two stem cell lines as if they were 11."
The university will expand its inquiry to Hwang's 2004 Science paper, in which his team reported the first ever success in producing a line of human embryonic stem cells from a cloned human blastocyst. The panel will also examine the group's Nature paper published this summer describing the first cloned dog (ScienceNOW, 3 August). Both studies have come under intense scrutiny recently.
When asked whether Hwang had ordered his team to falsify data, Roe said all circumstantial evidence and testimony from his researchers indicated that was the case. Hwang also acknowledged that he was at least partly responsible, she said. Roe said she didn't know what the university's disciplinary committee would do regarding Hwang, because the investigation is continuing. "However, the findings up to now are so grave that he cannot avoid heavy punishment."
A few hours after the university released its report, Hwang announced that he would resign as professor and expressed deep remorse to the Korean people for disappointing them. But he insisted that the technology behind patient-specific stem cells belonged to South Korea and that he could still prove it. A university spokesperson said because SNU is a national university, Hwang is considered a civil servant and the law did not permit him to resign until after the investigation is over.
Despite the damaging findings, some Korean scientists viewed the report as a welcome development. One of the young scientists who signed a petition earlier this month asking the university to investigate Hwang's work applauded the committee. "The impression is that the investigation team is doing fine," she said. "Right now, some think that SNU's credibility has been damaged, but I think that after the investigation is properly done, SNU's credibility will recover."
Some worry about the harm done to the scientific community as a whole. "It is sad that someone apparently felt the need to claim results that they had not yet achieved," said stem-cell expert Peter Andrews at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom in a statement released today. "In the end, the progress of science depends on results being repeated in independent labs, but along the way we have to work by trusting our colleagues," he said. "It comes as a shock when occasionally we find that someone has betrayed that trust."