Lies in Korean Stem Cell Research

The Buzz

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: The scientist who fabricated stem cell research. Image credit

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:

  • Doctors could grow patient customized replacement organs for victims of heart, kidney, liver failure ending the shortage of donated organs and the problems of patient rejection of organs.
  • Researchers could offer treatments to previously untreatable neurological diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's


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.

The rock star

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.

Cracks start to show

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.

What does this mean for science and "Science"?

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.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

bryan kennedy's picture

Who are the victims in this story? It's not the scientific process as much as it is the victims of the diseases that stem-cell research would benefit. Undoubtedly this fiasco will slow investment and thereby research in this field, delaying direly needed discoveries.

An important stem cell researcher at the University of Edinburgh, Professor John Savill says it perfectly:
"We've got to think about the damage to a developing treatment of unforeseen adverse effects in very sick patients, where an apparent adverse event might not be anything to do with your treatment."

posted on Tue, 01/10/2006 - 5:43pm
mjsaenz's picture
mjsaenz says:

This fellow's falsehoods have clobbered the public perception of stem-cell research. In the US, it is already restricted by government mandate. Having a fraud as the scientific "sucess story" for stem-cell research can only make funding and resources for it even more difficult to obtain.

What motivated him? Surely he would understand that his fraud would eventually be uncovered. Especially in a fast-developing field like stem-cell research.

posted on Tue, 01/10/2006 - 6:09pm
bryan kennedy's picture

Hwang Woo Suk was indicted for fraud and embezzlement in South Korea today. Five other members of his team were also indicted since the fraud seems to have been a team effort with Hwang at the top. The New York Times has more coverage.

Hwang was such a celebrity in South Korea after his rise to international fame that he had over 300 supports who staged an over night candlelight vigil outside the prosecutors office. There is an enormous regard for science and its stars over in South Korea. I hope this scandal doesn't harm the reputation of the whole field in that country.

posted on Fri, 05/12/2006 - 4:14pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

While Dr. Hwang my have done great disservice to science of stem cell research - the real threat is from religious fundies who want to kill all stem cell research in the US.\r\n\r\nThanks bud

posted on Sun, 05/14/2006 - 2:25pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

What exactly was he indicted for?

posted on Sat, 05/13/2006 - 3:30pm
mjsaenz's picture
mjsaenz says:

not only am I a Member...I'm also a Visitor...

posted on Tue, 01/10/2006 - 6:09pm
Joe's picture
Joe says:

Bryan's question about checking the research they publish reminded me of the Archaeoraptor hoax that National Geographic was a part of a few years back. The publishers of National Geographic published an article based on a fossil find from China that was touted as the evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds. National Geographic published their story expecting a paper on Archaeoraptor to appear in a scientific journal quickly after their article was published. Ultimately, two scientific journals (Science and Nature) rejected the paper on Archaeoraptor because the evidence that the fossil specimen was authentic was inconclusive. It turned out that the fossil was a chimera, a combination of an ancient bird and a dinosaur (Microraptor), and added fuel to the fire for those do not agree with evolutionary theory.

posted on Wed, 01/11/2006 - 1:25pm
Joe's picture
Joe says:

CNN.com has a story on this that came out today. The University where Hwang Woo-suk conducted his research issued a formal apology yesterday. Chung Un-chan, the head of the University called it a "blemish on the whole scientific community as well as our country" and a "criminal act in academia."

posted on Wed, 01/11/2006 - 1:28pm
S.J.'s picture
S.J. says:

In no way, shape, or form does this forgive Hwang Woo-suk's lying about his findings - but in a way this story also speaks to the immense pressure that scientists feel to make the next big discovery and a journal's desire to publish those findings. One of the other interesting aspects to this story is the fact that several other people who worked in Hwang Woo-suk's field - but not in his lab put their names on the paper as co-authors. In my opinion - this goes to show that some scientists are a little to quick to try to latch on to a big "discovery". This all being said - the buck stops with Hwang Woo-suk, he shouldn't have fabricated results - this proved to be a short and hollow victory for him and the field of stem-cell research.

posted on Thu, 01/12/2006 - 7:56pm
bryan kennedy's picture

I couldn't agree more S.J. The work Hwang was conducting also must have required a bevy of lab assistants and other personnel. I can't image that no one else knew about this fake. I haven't seen any reporting on this and would hope that the investigation will suggest some reforms to how the universities labs work to prevent this in the future. It simply shouldn't be this easy to fake discoveries on this scale.

posted on Fri, 01/13/2006 - 11:03am
James Satter's picture

In a public letter, Science editor-in-chief Donald Kennedy addresses how publishing Hwang's fabricated stem-cell data has hurt the journal's credibility. The letter also describes the journal's efforts to uncover how the fraudulent research ever made its way into print without anyone detecting Hwang's misconduct.

As a result, Science is considering taking new measures to protect against scientific dishonesty in the future. Kennedy writes: "Fraudulent research is a particularly disturbing event, because it threatens an enterprise built on trust. Fortunately, such cases are rare--but they damage all of us."

posted on Fri, 01/13/2006 - 7:11pm
S. Ray DeRusse's picture
S. Ray DeRusse says:


It is indeed a terrible situation at SNU but only the tip of the iceberg as has been our experience with numerous University scientists. Fudging data and other serious forms of misconduct is apparently very common. The message must be sent that those who commit these acts will be dealt with severely. For scientists who have been exposed please visit our website at the following URL:


"Fraudulent research or results reporting is a particularly disturbing event, because it threatens an enterprise built on trust."


S. Ray DeRusse

posted on Sun, 01/15/2006 - 11:00pm
Joe's picture
Joe says:

The magazine New Scientist is reporting that a patent application filed by Woo Suk Hwang based on work now admitted to be falsified, may still be granted. If the application is approved, it could present a substantial obstacle to anyone seeking future patents in the same field. Yet another example of how damaging this will end up being.

posted on Wed, 01/18/2006 - 1:55pm
Joe's picture
Joe says:

CNN.com has an article that indicates that Hwang's team actually did reach a long-sought scientific goal. It's just not the one that he claimed to reach.

posted on Thu, 08/02/2007 - 7:44pm

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