University investigators say results for all tailored stem cells were fabricated
THE career and reputation of South Korean cloning pioneer Hwang Woo-suk appeared to have been dealt a final blow yesterday. The country's leading university said the results for all the stem cells he claimed were tailored to individual patients - a "breakthrough" that had led to the hope of big develop-ments in medicine - were fabricated.
Seoul National University's investigative panel, which said last week that at least nine of the 11 patient-specific stem-cell lines Mr Hwang reported in May in the journal Science were fabricated, has announced that the remaining two were also faked.
"The panel couldn't find stem cells that match patients' DNA regarding the 2005 paper, and it doesn't believe Hwang's team has scientific data to prove that [such stem cells] were made," Roe Jung-hye, the university's dean of research affairs, said at a news conference.
The latest finding deals another huge setback for global research into stem cells, master cells that can grow into any body tissue. Creating patient-specific stem cells would be a breakthrough as they would not be rejected by patients' individual immune systems.
Scientists hope one day to use the technology to cure diseases such as Alzheimer's and diabetes and grow replacement tissue that could help the paralysed to walk again.
The panel's interim results also suggested that even the stem-cell lines that Mr Hwang claimed to have developed - though did not include in the 2005 paper - also failed to match patients' DNA, challenging his insistence he was capable of doing so.
Still, Mr Roe said the panel remains in consultation with outside experts on that point, final results of which will have to wait for the panel's concluding report, due out in the middle of next month.
Mr Hwang shot to international fame last year when he said, also in Science, that he had created the world's first cloned human embryo and extracted stem cells from it. This year, he and his research team also said in the journal Nature that they had produced the world's first cloned dog, an afghan hound named Snuppy.
Those breakthroughs - also thrown into question - catapulted the veterinary surgeon, dubbed "The Pride of Korea", into the role of national hero in this achievement-oriented east Asian country, where the government responded with pledges of massive financial support.
Last Friday, after the university's report on the nine stem-cell lines, Mr Hwang, 53, apologised for the fabrication and stepped down as professor at the prestigious university.
"The bottom line is that it's a major disaster to our whole field, because the expectations were so high and now we are back to square one," said Joseph Itskovitz, a stem-cell researcher and director of the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at Rambam Medical Centre in Haifa, Israel.
"We have actually to develop new technologies ... or seek alternatives to have cell lines that will be immunologically matched to the potential patient," he told reporters.
Mr Hwang's troubles began last month when he admitted, after more than a year of denial, that he used donated eggs from female workers at his lab, in violation of ethics guidelines. He also acknowledged that he had recently found that some of the eggs he used had been bought, whereas he had claimed that all were provided voluntarily.
Despite Mr Hwang's fall from grace, some of those who had the greatest hopes for his success weren't ready to give up the dreams that his claims inspired. "Our confidence in Mr Hwang remains unchanged," said Jung Jin-owan, 40, the secretary-general of the Korea Spinal Cord Injury Association.
"As we didn't hear directly from Mr Hwang about the result, we would like to believe that he created patient-specific stem cells," added Mr Jung, the lower half of whose body is paralysed as a result of a 1987 accident.
The South Korean government, which last week strongly suggested it would stop supporting Mr Hwang, reacted cautiously.
"We don't have an official position over today's report, as Seoul National University's investigation is still under way," said Nam Sang-mun, the director of the public information division at the science and technology ministry.
The panel has yet to deliver its conclusion on whether Mr Hwang's team produced the world's first cloned dog.
A DNA testing lab in Seoul concluded yesterday that Snuppy was an actual clone, based on blood tests it had conducted.
"Our testing indicates that Snuppy is a cloned dog," said Lee Seung-jae, chief executive of the DNA testing lab, Humanpass.
However, an investigation panel member said the process of verifying a cloned dog was more difficult than it may seem. Dogs are considered one of the most difficult animals to clone because of their reproductive cycle. Snuppy, short for Seoul National University puppy, was born on 24 April after a normal, full-term pregnancy in a labrador surrogate mother.
Mr Hwang's whereabouts were unknown, and he could not be reached for comment.
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