Seoul University Debunks Stem-Cell Paper

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An investigatory panel convened by Seoul National University in South Korea has concluded that a much-publicized breakthrough in stem-cell research conducted there was mostly fabricated. Additional tests will show whether all the data in the study is worthless.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A study hailed as one of the great scientific achievements of the year appears to be largely a work of fiction. Scientists at Seoul National University in South Korea carried out the research. Now a panel convened by the university to investigate questions about that research has concluded most of the work was fabricated. In a few days, additional tests will show whether it was all made up. Joining us now to talk about the scandal is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Good morning.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: This scandal has been brewing and in the news for weeks now. Remind us what the research was all about and how the problems started appearing.

PALCA: Well, this paper was showing that you could take a skin cell from basically anyone--you or me--and take the nucleus and put it into an egg cell from which you've removed the DNA, and that if it's--that will frequently start to grow and that becomes a cloned embryo, and that cloned embryo is a genetic match of you or me or whoever the skin cell was taken from. And if you then derive embryonic stem cells from that embryo, you've got a line of embryonic stem cells that are exactly like the person you started with. And scientists thought that this was an incredible thing, and the Korean team said that they had gotten 11 separate lines. But back in November there were some ethical problems that came up about how the eggs that were used in the experiments were obtained, and then there were little hints that there were problems, like a table seemed to have a data that was wrong, or a picture seemed to be mislabeled or out of place. But soon it started to cascade, and everything began to come unglued.

MONTAGNE: And the panel investigating these allegations, what did it finally conclude?

PALCA: Well, of the original--of the claim that there were 11 different stem cell lines from 11 different individuals, the panel could only find evidence for two, and the other nine were either made up, contaminated or never existed at all, as far as the panel could tell. And the remaining two are now being tested to see whether there's any proof that they were actually, you know, cloned--in other words, taken from a specific individual or whether that was just a spare embryo from a fertility clinic that was used to derive embryonic stem cells.

MONTAGNE: Now this scientist was hugely famous in South Korea, and the work was, you know, highly regarded initially.

PALCA: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: What effect has this scandal had on the scientific community?

PALCA: Well, Hwang Woo-suk has now announced his intention to resign, and one would have to say it's a resignation in disgrace. People had great hope for this technology, and scientists from around the world had sort of been making pilgrimages to Seoul to see how he did this work. So his claim was very well-regarded, but now I think everything he's ever done, including--you know, he claimed to have made a dog, Snuppy, earlier this year, and now that claim is being investigated. And he's also--a year ago he said he had actually done this first time of deriving a stem cell line, which was a big breakthrough last year, and that now is getting a great deal of scrutiny.

MONTAGNE: And so does this mean it's not possible to make embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos?

PALCA: Well, all it means for sure is we don't know yet. We thought--I mean, the scientific community thought that this had been done. Now there's a great doubt about that. But I know that most scientists who think about these things think it's possible, and there are several teams around the world that are planning to try. But right now, what was thought was a breakthrough doesn't quite appear to be that.

MONTAGNE: Joe, thanks very much.

PALCA: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

This is NPR News.

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