SEOUL--Once-famed, now disgraced stem cell pioneer Woo Suk Hwang was indicted today on charges of fraud, embezzlement, and violations of a bioethics law. Five other members of the team have also been indicted--three on fraud charges, one on a bioethics law violation, and one for destroying evidence and obstructing normal business operations.
Hwang, formerly a professor at Seoul National University (SNU), had claimed in a March 2004 Science paper to have made a breakthrough in so-called therapeutic cloning by creating a stem cell line from a cloned human blastocyst. He followed that a year later with a second Science paper claiming to have created 11 stem cell lines derived from tissue contributed by patients suffering from spinal cord injury, diabetes, or an immune disorder (ScienceNOW, 19 May 2005). Together these papers promised breakthrough progress toward creating replacement cells and tissues for these and other diseases that would be genetically matched to an individual patient. Hwang was feted by scientists around the world and became a national hero in South Korea, which hoped to ride his achievements to worldwide prominence in stem cell research.
The claims started unravelling last fall. First, allegations of bioethical lapses in collecting oocytes surfaced. These were followed by the identification of problems with manipulated photos and other supporting data. In January 2006, SNU announced that an investigating committee had concluded no cloned stem cell lines existed, Hwang and his coauthors retracted both papers, and Seoul public prosecutors launched an investigation (ScienceNOW, 20 March).
The prosecutors' conclusions, released here today, are documented in a 150-page report that fills in some of the remaining holes in the Hwang saga. According to the prosecutors, Hwang and the team apparently believed the "Number 1" stem cell line that formed the basis for the 2004 Science paper was truly derived from a cloned blastocyst. Two separate investigations by SNU, however, concluded that the blastocyst most likely resulted from parthenogenesis, a form of asexual reproduction. The prosecutors' report leaves it up to academics to sort out whether the blastocyst was the result of cloning or parthenogenesis. However, the report says Hwang's team did not keep proper records and did not have evidence to support any scientific claims. So Hwang ordered associates Jong Hyuk Park and Sun Jong Kim to fabricate photos, DNA test results, and other supporting data.
When it came to the June 2005 paper claiming the creation of 11 patient-specific cell lines, the report says that Sun Jong Kim, a member of the team from MizMedi Hospital, was in charge of deriving stem cells from cloned blastocysts. He was unable to do so. But feeling pressure to perform and wanting to make a name for himself, he took fertilized stem cells from MizMedi's collection and mixed them with material from Hwang's lab. He was the only one who knew. Hwang apparently did not realize what had been done until the investigations were launched late last year. Prosecutors said, however, that Hwang was responsible for ordering subordinates to fabricate supporting data as he did in the 2004 article.
The prosecutors confirmed earlier reports that Hwang had used far more oocytes than the several hundred he acknowledged, collecting 2236 oocytes from 122 women. Of these women, 71 were compensated. Paying for oocytes continued even after a bioethics law banned the practice in January 2005.
Meanwhile, in addition to research misconduct, the prosecutors claim Hwang misappropriated $2.99 million in state funds and private donations. They outlined an elaborate scheme in which Hwang withdrew large amounts of cash and carried it in bags to other banks to avoid a paper trail of bank transfers. He had some 60 accounts under different names and the names of relatives. To cover up some of the embezzlement, he wrote up false tax statements claiming to have bought pigs and cows for research purposes.
Hwang faces up to 3 years in prison for violating the bioethics law and up to 10 years for the misuse of state funds. Two of his associates were also indicted for fraudulently obtaining research funds. And Sun Jong Kim was charged with destroying evidence and obstructing normal business operations at SNU. The prosecutors did not file any charges against Hwang for publishing fraudulent research reports, saying it would be a complicated procedure that would have to involve Science.
In summing up impressions from the investigation at a press briefing, senior prosecutor In-Gyu Lee placed partial blame on "the strict Korean lab culture," which leaves junior researchers powerless to refuse unethical demands by lab heads. He added that while this demonstrated that "a lot of scientists lacked ethics," he also noted the fraud had damaged many junior researchers and collaborators who had no idea of what Hwang and his close associates were up to.
Korea's research community seems to be taking the lesson to heart. One stem cell researcher, who didn't want to be identified by name, says he believes universities will move to set up offices of research integrity. "That's one good thing that might come out of this tragedy," he says.