The future for Hwang Woo Suk does not look gloomy

Published in The Hindu on October 28, 2009


After becoming the pride of South Korea and gaining worldwide fame due to his ‘seminal’ work on human embryonic stem cell research published in Science in March 2004, the spectre of his past caught up with him and Hwang Woo Suk fell from the high pedestal in less than one-and-half years.

But such was the disgraced researcher’s skill that his carefully crafted data fabrication and image manipulation were not spotted during the peer-reviewing process and the ‘research’ was published in the journal Science in March 2004 and May 2005.

The first paper was about stem cell lines being produced from a cloned human embryo, and the second paper was about the creation of 11 stem cell lines after obtaining cells from nine patients suffering from spinal cord injury, diabetes and an immune system disorder. It meant that the cell lines were genetically matched to the donors of these cells.

The fraud would not have come to light or would have taken a longer time but for the whistleblower — a researcher who had worked with Dr. Hwang for the 2004 paper. His tip-off to the Seoul-based Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) led to an investigation that revealed the depth of the fraud.

The Biological Research Information Center (BRIC), which provides online news on scientific trends, got the public to identify image manipulation. Readers flooded BRIC with information about many manipulations. Soon there was overwhelming evidence of fraudulence.

Dr. Hwang admitted to falsifying data for the two papers in January 2006 and Science had retracted both the papers in January 2006. And in the same year the government withdrew his licence to conduct stem cell research.

Yet, the Seoul Central District Court cleared him of research fraud and found him guilty of only embezzling government money worth $700,000 and buying human eggs in violation of the country’s bioethics law. He was handed down a two-year sentence, suspended for three years.

He was not found guilty of committing research fraud by the Court. In South Korea, scientific fraud becomes illegal only if a researcher uses fraudulent data to secure grants. The Court rejected the charge that Hwang had used his work to gain grants to the tune of $2.1 million.

South Korea had made it illegal to buy human eggs in January 2005. The National Bioethics Committee in its interim report of February 2006 noted that Hwang had received at least 2,221 eggs from 119 women between November 2002 and December 2005. However, Dr. Hwang had, in his two papers, claimed to have used only 427 eggs, thus making it appear that the efficiency of conversion was superior.

There was yet another ethical violation. He had obtained eggs from two women working for him in his laboratory. It is not ethically right to do so as the women could have donated under coercion.

But Dr. Hwang has been able to shake off the ghost of one of biggest frauds and has not only escaped a jail term but has actually flourished during the last three years when the trial was going on.

According to Nature, he has established a research institute, got patents for human cloning processes, received a scientific excellence award, published a handful of papers and entered into a collaboration with a powerful provincial government. Why, he received the Jang Yeong-sil Memorial Foundation award for scientific excellence!

He has his own following and people who vehemently support him, no matter his murky past. And 33 parliamentarians who submitted a petition to the Seoul Central District Court, which is hearing his case, pleaded leniency in sentencing him to enable him to continue his research work.

Having successfully escaped a prison sentence, he can continue his research on mammalian cloning. His only claim to genuine work has been the cloning of an Afgan hound, ‘Snuppy,’ that was published in Nature in August 2005.

But the scientific community is not eager to welcome him back into its fold. “It was not just one moment of weakness — the degree of manipulation of the goodwill of people, particularly fellow scientists, made it more,” Alan Colman, a stem-cell researcher at the Institute of Medical Biology, Singapore was quoted as saying in Nature.

According to the journal, a researcher Ryuzo Torii of the Shiga University of Medical Science in Japan had used a large amount of money and time to reproduce Hwang’s results in non-human primates. Dr. Torii is just one of the several scientists who had wasted their time trying to reproduce Dr. Hwang’s ‘work.’