Since early 2004 the scientific community has been all abuzz with news of the multiple remarkable discoveries of South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk. His work has given him rock-star status in South Korea that we can hardly imagine in America. The only problem is, he was completely lying about several of his key findings. He finally admitted to this deceit on Monday, Jan. 9th, but also claims he was sabotaged.
Hwang Woo-suk was a pioneer in the field of stem-cell research and cloning. Stem cells are the special cells in a human embryo that can grow into any type of tissue or organ in the body. Research into these cells offers the possibility of many unique science breakthroughs:
February 1999 - Hwang Woo-suk announces he has cloned a milk cow, making him only the fifth person to have done this in the world. He does not publish his findings in any scientific journal.
February 2004 - Hwang Woo-suk published his claims of cloning 30 human embryos in the journal "Science". This discovery gets worldwide press coverage.
February 2005 -Hwang is so celebrated in his home country of South Korea he is issued his own commemorative postage stamp. 1.6 million stamps are printed to celebrate the cloning of a human embryo, which Hwang now admits was faked.
May 2005 - Hwang says he has created 11 unique stem cell lines each tailored to an individual person. This tailoring of stem cells had never been done before. This process would allow people to grow their own custom stem cells, which could be used to treat diseases without the fear of the immune system rejecting the cells as foreign invaders.
August 2005 - Hwang's team successfully clone the first dogs. The team is able to create two afghan hounds. While the first one died after birth the second, Snuppy, has grown up healthy. Dogs and humans do share some similar characteristics. By studying disease in dogs and cloning in dogs we might make breakthroughs in treating human diseases.
November 2005 - As claims of fraud start to build, Hwang admits to using eggs from research team members. Admits paying women for donated eggs.
This same month he announces he will step down at leader of the World Stem Cell Hub, an international research group based in Seoul with branches in London and California.
December 2005 - Seoul National University announces they will convene a month long panel to investigate the validity of Hwang's research.
December 23, 2005 - The panel at Seoul National University announces that Hwang faked several of his research breakthroughs. Roe Jung Hye, head of research at Seoul National University said Hwang's actions "were not simple mistakes...There was intentional fabrication. This activity was major misconduct that damages the foundation of science."
Hwang Woo-suk offers to resign his post at the university
January 9, 2006 - Hwang admits he faked the cloning results. Investigative team at the Seoul National University announces that Hwang's Feb. 2004 paper was also a fake. Interestingly they also announce that he WAS successful in cloning a dog. That means that Snuppy really is a clone.
Hwang Woo-suk's discoveries of unique ways to harvest stem cells have made him a hero in the field and specifically in South Korea. Stem cell research is a minefield of ethical problems because stem cells that offer the most potential for study must be harvested from human embryos that are a few days old. Hwang's work was able to offer an alternative to this process by cloning several human embryos, helping to eliminate the need for new embryos. Hwang claimed he had successfully cloned 30 human embryos, claims that have now been shown to be lies.
All of these wonderful discoveries started to fall apart in the fall of 2005 when a female member of his research team said she was coerced into donating her own eggs for research study. Ethical standards and Korean regulations prohibit research team members from donating their own eggs since it could lead to abuses of power.
Eventually the Seoul National University where Hwang works opened a month long investigation into Hwang's research. "Science," the journal where some of Hwang's research was published will conduct an internal inquiry as well. At first Hwang stood by his claims but as the investigations have proceeded it became clear that much of his research had been faked and he eventually admitted to it.
This revelation of such grand fraud has been a disaster for many parties involved, but especially the prestigious journal "Science". In modern science research nobody really considers your findings or claims valid until they have been published in a reputable "peer-reviewed" journal. This process allows other experts in the field (your peers) to review your work and check your methods.
For major discoveries and breakthroughs, papers are usually submitted to the journals, "Science" or "Nature". The process of review for these journals is very rigorous and articles published there are expected to be of the highest quality. Hwang's fake cloning discovery was published in the journal Science and his report of successfully cloning a dog was published in Nature.
The idea that these publications could play host to entirely false and/or fabricated research has shaken the scientific community. The journal, Science, has launched a full investigation, but people wonder if this will damage the reputation of this very important journal.
Do you think scientific journals should do more to check the research they publish? Keep in mind that Hwang was one of the most respected researchers in his field.