Erstwhile allies poles apart on stem cell claims
Hwang asks 10 days to clear his name, hospital director repeats fraud charges
▶ Roh Sung-il at his press conference. [YONHAP]
Rebutting accusations that he fabricated his research findings, the stem cell expert Hwang Woo-suk insisted yesterday that his team did clone 11 customized stem cell lines and defended the technological validity of his cloning procedure. He conceded, though, that there had been “poor management” of the cells his team created.
But his most recent chief accuser, Roh Sung-il, took on Dr. Hwang in a separate press conference after Dr. Hwang had finished his. Methodically, he dissected his former colleague’s presentation point by point and contended that the research was indeed fabricated.
Dr. Hwang was calm as he detailed the steps in his cloning experiments. He said that five of the stem cell lines, those that had been frozen after being produced, were thawed two weeks ago and are now being retested. He said he would be able to show that those cells are genuine stem cells that match a specific individual’s DNA ― in other words, true clones. He asked for about 10 days to complete those tests.
But he did say he wanted to withdraw an article on the technique that was published in the June edition of the journal Science, a U.S. publication. He said he had already told the journal that he wanted the piece withdrawn, and would ask formally after receiving the consent of the other authors, 25 in all.
▶ Hwang Woo-suk meets the press. By Choi Seung-sik
Dr. Hwang said that his team had initially produced six stem cell lines that were found to have been contaminated by a fungus infection in January, an infection he attributed to construction that had been going on in his research building. He said the cells were destroyed and that he had informed the government at the time of the accident.
The second and third lines in that group, he said, had been sent to MizMedi hospital for safekeeping. He said his team retrieved those two lines, created six new ones and then three more later ― 11 in all.
He demanded that law enforcement authorities here investigate how five of the cell colonies came to be replaced by other stem cells that had been made during research at MizMedi Hospital. He said he learned that the stem cells reportedly from his experiments were in fact unrelated colonies when a team from a television documentary program told him that the DNA of those cells did not match those of the original donor to whom they were allegedly matched. Earlier, however, Dr. Hwang’s team had said the producers of MBC-TV’s PD Notebook had conducted the DNA typing incorrectly.
“When I gave the cells to MBC, I was confident that they were real or else I wouldn’t have done it in the first place. We even took the pains of sending one of our researchers to the United States to retrieve a hair sample from one of the donors, a foreigner,” Dr. Hwang said.
“But when MBC told us the DNA fingerprints were different from the ones we had sent Science, we were confused and at first suspected that perhaps the stem cells’ fingerprints had changed during the course of repeated cultivation,” he continued. “But stem cell experts had never seen this sort of phenomenon before, and so when PD Notebook said they suspected that we used MizMedi’s stem cells, we asked MizMedi if the analysis of the stem cells we had were the same as their own. They confirmed that they were.”
Roh Sung-il of MizMedi, a former colleague of Dr. Hwang, came out swinging when he met the press later. He restated his allegations of deceit and called on Dr. Hwang to take the responsibility for the problems. Meeting the press the day before, Dr. Roh called Dr. Hwang’s stem cells “faked.”
Dr. Roh’s role in the research was to provide human ova to the team for its work. He was also a co-author of the article published in Science earlier this year.
Yesterday, he claimed that Dr. Hwang did not make 11 stem cell lines but perhaps none or two at most ― the two that were stored at his hospital. He lashed out bitterly at Dr. Hwang, saying he was not qualified to be a scientist or social leader. He accused his former friend and colleague of trying to make scapegoats of his hospital and a former researcher on Dr. Hwang’s team who has said the research results had been fabricated. He promised to test the remainder of the two stem cell lines stored at his hospital to see if they were indeed clones of the type Dr. Hwang has claimed.
After the two press conferences, the government said that the validity of Dr. Hwang’s claims must be determined through scientific investigation. After an emergency meeting led by the prime minister, Lee Hae-chan, officials said they would wait for the results of an internal investigation by Seoul National University, which has just named a science review board to look into the matter. Yesterday, the university said it had named nine panel members, including two from outside the institution, to conduct those investigations.
Most politicians reacted cautiously, but the Democratic Labor Party criticized the administration for its earlier silence. “According to Dr. Hwang, the government already knew that there were severe problems with the article. We must find out who kept quiet about such a vital issue for such a long time,” the party spokesman Park Yong-jin said.
Perhaps the people most devastated by the day’s events were those with incurable diseases, especially the 20,000 who had registered as test subjects at the new World Stem Cell Hub, which opened two months ago. Dr. Hwang headed the hub until he resigned after earlier admitting ethical problems with his research procedures.
by Wohn Dong-hee