SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA--Woo Suk Hwang's dramatic claims to have created patient-specific embryonic stem cells were all but demolished today. Seoul National University's dean of research affairs told reporters in a press conference that there is no evidence that any of the cell lines Hwang's team reported in Science earlier this year were genuine.
Last week, Roe Jung-hye announced that an internal investigation found that Hwang had deliberately falsified data in the May paper and that only two stem cell lines existed out of the 11 cited. Today, Roe said three outside labs have determined those two lines were not derived from cloned embryos, but instead came from embryos created by in vitro fertilization at MizMedi Hospital in Seoul, which collected oocytes for Hwang's research. Neither line could be traced to the patients suffering from spinal cord injury, diabetes, or an immune disorder who had donated skin cells for the work. The team also tested six other unpublished cell lines that Hwang had kept in storage, but those too matched the MizMedi lines.
"The investigation panel therefore concludes that Professor Hwang's team does not have the scientific data that can prove they created patient-specific stem cells," Roe told reporters. She said genetic tests on the cell line described in Hwang's 2004 paper in Science, purportedly describing creation of the first--and so far the only--human cell line cloned from a healthy oocyte donor, are ongoing.
Roe says the university is also still examining Hwang's paper in Nature describing the first cloned dog (ScienceNOW, 3 August). The university will include those test results, among others, in its final report on its investigation, which will be issued in mid-January.
Last week, Hwang filed a complaint with the Seoul prosecutor's office claiming that someone had switched his stem cell lines with ones from MizMedi. Roe says the university is leaving that inquiry to the prosecutors.
A reporter asked Roe about reports that Kim Sun-jong, a key member of Hwang's team who had been in Pittsburgh, had received $30,000 from other members of the team as questions were being raised about the ethics of Hwang's work. Roe says that Kim acknowledged he had received the money and promised to turn it over to the university. However, she again said prosecutors, not the university, should look into why the money was given.
Ian Wilmut of the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, who led the team that cloned Dolly the sheep, told ScienceNOW the extent of the falsifications was "astonishing and very sad." Wilmut had planned to collaborate with Hwang to derive new patient-matched cell lines. "This conclusion puts us right back where we were before Hwang's first paper was published, with no evidence that cell lines can be obtained from human embryos cloned by the present methods," he added. "This is very disappointing mostly for the people who had hoped to benefit from new treatments, but also for those of us who hoped to use the technology."