Co-Author Voices Concerns on Stem-Cell Paper
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
One of the authors of a landmark scientific paper is saying the research is flawed and that the paper should be retracted. The paper showed that it was possible to use cloning techniques to make embryonic stem cells from individual patients. Scientists at Seoul National University carried out the research. Now an American co-author on the paper says he has reason to believe that some of the work may be fabricated. Joining me now is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca. Good morning.
JOE PALCA reporting:
MONTAGNE: Joe, before we get to this new accusation, it seems to be it was just two weeks ago that this South Korean research was caught up in an ethical scandal.
PALCA: Right. Well, that's right. Two weeks ago at the end of November, Professor Hwang Woo-suk at Seoul National University was forced to admit that members of his team had used eggs that--from women who had been paid and, in one case, from junior colleagues, which is sometimes considered coercive and ethically unacceptable. He had used their eggs in the cloning part of this experiment because the paper described how you could take cells from an adult person, in this case, and create a cloned embryo, and then from that embryo, you could derive embryonic stem cells. And the big breakthrough in this paper was that instead of just doing this once or twice and taking lots and lots of eggs, they had actually made 11 different lines from 11 different people.
But the allegations now are that the data supporting this claim of making 11 separate cell lines is being called into question, and in particular, Gerald Schatten, who's a co-author on the paper--he's at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. He actually didn't do the research but came at the end and helped the Korean scientists write the paper and present the data. He's saying that he's got information from a credible source, one of the other authors on the paper, that some of the pictures may have not been of all 11 lines but only two lines were used, and some of the data looks a little too good to be credible. You know, sometimes things look too good, and that's sometimes a tip-off that there's problems.
MONTAGNE: Well, how did it happen that these new accusations came out now rather than, say, you know, earlier in this process?
PALCA: Well, this story has been bubbling along in the Korean press. I mean, it's been the complete center of attention for the Korean media, and also about 10 days ago or so, a Korean investigative program said that there were accusations from a team member that there were problems with some of these figures. It turns out that it appears that the person from--the team member that was making the accusation was actually working in Pittsburgh with Dr. Schatten, and Dr. Schatten wrote a letter to Science, which published the paper, and in the letter, he said, `I received allegations from someone involved with the experiments that certain elements of the report may be fabricated,' and the thinking on this is that the reports came from this colleague of his from Korea, who was working in his lab in Pittsburgh.
MONTAGNE: So where does this go from here? This is international. Who decides whether these allegations are true or not?
PALCA: Well, Science magazine, the journal that published the paper, has asked Seoul National University to come up with an explanation. They've asked the Korean scientists, so there's an investigation at Seoul. The University of Pittsburgh is conducting an investigation, and Science is asking for clarifications. So all three of these parties will play a role in figuring this out.
MONTAGNE: Joe, if these allegations are proven--and we were just talking yesterday about the damage these ethical problems might do to stem cell research--how big of a black eye is this?
PALCA: Well, it's bad. It's bad, in general, for science when something comes out that things may have been altered or doctored in some way, but other researchers are saying, look, there's a lot going on in embryonic stem cell research, and this is just one part, and the field will move forward.
MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, NPR's science correspondent, Joe Palca.
PALCA: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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