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The Rise and Fall of the Cloning King

9 minute read
Michael D. Lemonick

When Woo Suk Hwang burst into international prominence back in 2004, seemingly out of nowhere, his story seemed too good to be true. Here was a poor Korean farm boy who had overcome his humble origins to become a leading veterinary scientist, and then gone on to achieve a scientific landmark: the first therapeutic cloning of a human embryo. That transformed him into a biomedical superstar and made his native South Korea–a country better known for its serial television dramas than its scientific accomplishments–into the undisputed leader of a technology that could revolutionize modern medicine.

Over the next year or so, the tale only got better. Hwang, aided by a tireless, dedicated and underpaid laboratory staff that venerated him, went on to create multiple lines of thriving stem cells with unprecedented efficiency and ease. He topped his performance off last summer with yet another feat that had eluded some of the world’s most talented scientists: the first cloning of a dog, called Snuppy. TIME named Snuppy “Invention of the Year” for 2005, but that was merely the icing on a cake of praise and recognition for Hwang. Scientists from around the world were clamoring to collaborate with him. Volunteers besieged his operation, offering themselves as research subjects. The South Korean government began pouring millions into his chronically underfunded lab. He was given round-the-clock security and free travel on Korean Air for life.

But in the months since Snuppy’s debut in the journal Nature, Hwang’s saga has been rewritten–as a Greek tragedy. One by one, he has faced an escalating series of charges: first, that some women had been paid for the eggs they provided for his research, and that eggs also came from his employees, both ethical violations in the rigorous world of high-level research. Then came the allegation that some of the photos of cells he published did not show what he claimed. And finally, as he was forced to admit two weeks ago, before submitting his resignation to Seoul National University (S.N.U.), that nine of the 11 stem-cell lines he described in Science weren’t from clones at all. Last week, in a kind of scientific coup de grace, a university panel declared it could find no evidence to support the validity of the remaining two lines either.

Now the university is investigating the Snuppy report, along with Hwang’s original 2004 stem-cell paper in Science. Hwang maintains that the current imbroglio involved no fraud on his part. He claims that a mix-up with the stem cells resulted in the wrong stem-cell lines–ones he did not create–being published in Science. Despite his failure so far to prove it, he still insists that he has developed the technology to create human stem cells that could be used to grow resistance-free replacements for damaged nerve, organ and muscle tissue. Despite black, billowing smoke, says Hwang, there is no fire.

But it’s hard to find any scientist today who believes him. Even if Hwang’s two remaining triumphs, Snuppy and the first human cloning, emerge untainted, urgent questions remain. How did his now invalidated stem-cell paper get into a major scientific journal? How did such serious flaws go undetected for months? And could he have knowingly taken such foolish risks?

Evidently, the risk-taking began in 2004, with Hwang’s first major scientific paper on therapeutic cloning. In order to clone an adult, you need to put one of its cells into a human egg cell from which the nucleus has been removed. After electrical fusion and chemical activation, the egg can then start dividing, creating embryonic stem cells. (If left to mature, the embryo could eventually grow into a clone of the original adult–something no reputable scientist would let happen.)

But because egg donation is a painful and potentially risky process, paying women to do it is considered a form of coercion. Indeed, the 2004 study said women had “voluntarily donated oocytes … and no financial reimbursement in any form was paid.” But last spring, two of Hwang’s researchers let slip to a journalist working for Nature that they had donated their own eggs–which raised questions, since Hwang was their boss, about whether they had been coerced.

The women retracted their story, claiming that their poor English had caused them to misspeak. But by then an aggressive investigative team from MBC, a Korean TV network, had got wind of the allegations. The reporters interviewed many of the egg donors, some of whom said they had not been told they were part of a study, and confirmed that their eggs had been paid for. MBC was also hot on the trail of something even bigger: a tip that Hwang’s 2005 Science paper might contain fraudulent data. To verify the allegations, MBC requested samples of the stem cells, which Hwang provided. Pursuing their lead, the journalists tracked down two of three researchers from Hwang’s lab who had gone to the University of Pittsburgh to work with his American collaborator and co-author, Dr. Gerald Schatten. They tried to strong-arm the Koreans into confirming the charges of data manipulation, and soon after, Schatten abruptly announced that he was terminating his partnership with Hwang, citing “information … suggesting that misrepresentations might have occurred.” A day before the MBC report aired in Seoul on Nov. 22, Sung Il Roh, head of Seoul’s MizMedi Women’s Hospital, which processed the egg donors for Hwang’s study, admitted publicly that he had paid 16 of the women participating in Hwang’s research about $1,500 each for “transportation expenses.” Hwang, said Roh, knew nothing about the payments.

At the same time, Korea’s vibrant Internet culture started buzzing with allegations by two anonymous posters that photos in the 2005 paper purported to be of different stem-cell cultures were in fact identical, and that DNA fingerprints used to prove that the stem cells were derived from clones seemed suspicious. In retrospect, says Dr. Katrina Kelner, a deputy editor at Science, “these looked too clean” to be legitimate.

On Dec. 7 a group of young professors at S.N.U. upped the ante by demanding an investigation–a demand the university’s president initially refused. But a week later Hwang, who had been hospitalized on and off for “stress and exhaustion,” appeared publicly to announce that he was retracting the suspect Science paper. MBC’s request for samples had led him to do a retest, and to his surprise, he said, they were invalid. His theory: someone had switched the samples when they were at MizMedi to be photographed (his lab didn’t have the right microphotography equipment) and stored. Later he accused Sun Jong Kim, one of the scientists cornered in Pittsburgh by MBC, of making the switch.

In turn, Kim has accused Hwang of asking him to forge the suspect photographs. Kim also says Hwang paid him a total of $30,000 (that Kim has returned to the university), which Hwang says was simply to cover Kim’s living expenses in Pittsburgh. Korean press reports suggest that total payments to Kim and a colleague, Park Jong Hyuk, may amount to more than $50,000. These allegations are being investigated by Korean prosecutors.

MizMedi’s Roh, meanwhile, says that after a visit to Hwang at the hospital, he was convinced that “there are no embryonic stem cells.” In response to Hwang’s retraction, the university finally launched its investigation and announced last week that there is no evidence that any of the stem-cell lines Hwang claimed he had derived from adult cells ever existed (the full report is expected in mid-January). Until any further rulings come down–from the university’s continuing inquiry or from the prosecutors, who are also looking into Hwang’s allegations of cell switching at MizMedi–that’s pretty much all we know about what happened.

But why it happened is still a mystery. By all accounts, the tales of Hwang’s dedication and personal discipline are all true. Hwang was one of the first to arrive in the lab, at 5 a.m., and rarely left before midnight. He rejected the role of aloof, inaccessible scientist to become a father-like figure for his young charges. And he introduced some genuine innovations into the science of cloning–gently squeezing the nucleus out of a donor egg rather than sucking it out violently and inserting the entire adult cell, not just its nucleus, into the hollowed-out recipient egg. Hwang insisted he had no interest in profiting from his discoveries; indeed, he turned over his patent rights to the university and the government.

That being the case, it seems unlikely that Hwang set out to perpetrate fraud. But it wouldn’t be surprising if he, or someone in his lab, believed strongly enough in the work to be willing to cut corners. If that’s true, the precipitating event could have come last January, when some of his stem-cell samples became contaminated, possibly by a fungus circulating in poorly shielded air vents.

Hwang claims it took six months to recover from the disaster. But it also might be that Hwang’s team couldn’t recover quickly enough and began taking shortcuts to fill the gap. Under pressure from the government and the university, and with a deadline looming for publication in one of the world’s most prestigious journals, the temptation to stretch the truth might have been irresistible. “I can only speculate that Dr. Hwang was driven by ambition. He may have thought he could manipulate the data to secure research funding and compensate for his actions with follow-up results,” says Ki Jung Kim, a political scientist at Seoul’s Yonsei University. In short, fudge it now, fix it later.

It wouldn’t be the first time. In 1996 chemists from the University of Utah claimed they had discovered “cold fusion.” They hadn’t, it turned out, but a combination of ambition, fear of competition and pressure from the university led them to announce the discovery before they had any proof.

In Hwang’s case, it may be that mistakes were made or frauds committed without his knowledge, but as head of the research team and lead author of the published results, he’s stuck with the responsibility. No matter what the investigation concludes about his two other landmark papers, Hwang will be remembered for the fiasco that embarrassed his university and the South Korean government–and deepened the public’s unease and ambivalence about stem cells and human cloning.

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