Earlier Work by S. Korean Scientist Also Fraudulent
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An international scientific scandal is still unfolding in South Korea. A team from Seoul National University says tests indicate that the first cloned dog named Snuffy is genuine; however, all the human cloning work published by Hwang Woo-suk is fraudulent. Investigators had focused on a paper published in 2005. Now earlier work appears to be fabricated as well. The news is a blow to scientists who want to use cloning techniques to make stem cells for treating disease, but as NPR's Joe Palca reports, it does not spell an end to the field.
JOE PALCA reporting:
Two years ago, Hwang Woo-suk published a study that electrified the scientific community. In it, he claimed he could use cloning techniques to make embryonic stem cells that were genetically identical to a specific individual, cells that wouldn't be rejected if they were used for transplant therapy. The claim suggested that personalized stem cell therapies for a variety of diseases were just around the corner. Hwang wasn't the only scientist trying to make stem cells this way. In 2003, stem cell biologist Robert Lanza was trying the same thing.
Mr. ROBERT LANZA (Advanced Cell Technology): And if it wasn't for Hwang's hoax, there was a good chance we would have had the first human stem cells as early as 2004, and they would have been the real thing, not a sham.
PALCA: Lanza is vice president for medical and scientific development at a Massachusetts biotech company called Advanced Cell Technology.
Mr. LANZA: The Koreans appeared to be so far ahead of us that we actually appeared to be failures. Investor money dried up, and the company went into a financial nose dive.
PALCA: Lanza says the Korean fraud set back others as well.
Mr. LANZA: While Hwang was playing his game, this research was more or less on hold. People were assuming, you know, that Hwang had done this.
PALCA: But, in fact, other teams were planning to replicate Hwang's research. One of them is at Harvard University.
Mr. KEVIN EGGAN (Harvard University): We're still finalizing our approval at the university to be able to do these experiments. They're certainly a very high priority for us.
PALCA: Kevin Eggan is a stem cell biologist on the Harvard team. Eggan says there are two clear reasons to use cloning techniques to tailor make stem cells to particular individuals. One is to create a source of genetically matched cells that can be used for therapy. Eggan says his work focuses on the other reason.
Mr. EGGAN: What we aim to do is to make similar genetically tailored stem cell lines, but not so much to use them to treat the patient directly, but rather to study their disease.
PALCA: Eggan says you could grow the cells in the lab and then see how they respond to drugs, for example. Eggan is not overly pessimistic about what the Korean scandal has done to the stem cell field.
Mr. EGGAN: I think what we'll see now, I hope, is that this will encourage more responsible people to enter into the field and try to redirect what's been going on in a more positive direction.
PALCA: There's another reason some scientists aren't overly dismayed about the collapse of the Korean work. Peter Andrews is a stem cell biologist at the University of Sheffield in England.
Mr. PETER ANDREWS (University of Sheffield): In reality, this is really a very small part of understanding the biology of embryonic stem cells. So sad is the current events are in Korea and disappointing as it is that a group of scientists has appeared to have pulled the wool over our eyes, I don't think it will have a major impact on much of the research going on in this area.
PALCA: An area of research, Andrews says, still has enormous promise. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.