The controversy over the work of South Korean scientist Dr. Hwang Woo Suk continues to grow. Doubts about the credibility of his research is a blow not only to his many supporters in South Korea, but also to millions of people around the world who had hoped that his work held out cures for debilitating and life-threatening diseases. Dr. Hwang must answer the critics and end this dispute for his sake, for the sake of his country and for those who suffer from illness and disease.
Last year Dr. Hwang claimed he had made history by being the first person to clone a human cell. In plain terms, he removed natural DNA — the genetic code — from an egg and inserted DNA from another egg. Each of two new eggs then grew into an embryo. An embryo produces stem cells, which are capable of developing into every type of human tissue. The stem cells are considered clones, an exact genetic copy of an individual.
The significance of this breakthrough for medical science is hard to overestimate. Cloning allows a donor to generate new body parts. Since the DNA in the new tissue is the same as that of the recipient, his or her body would not reject it. This opens the door to entirely new ranges of therapies and treatments for previously untreatable diseases.
Following up on his initial success, Dr. Hwang claimed this year to have cloned cells of 11 people. Not only did he replicate and expand on his original procedure, but he said he created a new technique that makes it easier and more efficient to clone cells. The news made him a national hero in South Korea and instilled hope in millions of individuals around the world suffering from life-threatening ailments.
That hope has evaporated following reports that his groundbreaking work may have been faked. His research was first tainted by news that two junior researchers on his team had been paid to donate eggs for the project. This is a violation of ethical guidelines that prohibit researchers and their employees from donating eggs because of concerns that women might feel pressured into donating. While that may have raised alarms in the scientific community — an American collaborator, Dr. Gerald Schatten, said he would sever relations with the project — South Koreans rallied behind Dr. Hwang, lining up to donate eggs for his research.
The problems multiplied earlier this month following the admission that the photographs published in the online version of this year’s cloning paper were duplicates. Dr. Hwang said the mistake was unintentional. Since then questions have been raised about all 11 cells that Dr. Hwang claims to have created.
Last week a colleague of Dr. Hwang, Dr. Roh Sung Il, said nine of the cells did not exist, adding that Dr. Hwang had confessed that his own cells had died and that the photos came from embryos at Dr. Roh’s fertility clinic.
U.S. researchers have mounted additional challenges, claiming that tracings of the DNA in the 2004 experiments are suspicious. Dr. Hwang, who has been hospitalized on account of exhaustion as a result of the controversy, has said the charges are false and that he can prove his claims.
The revelations have rocked the South Korean public, which considers Dr. Hwang a national hero. They have rallied behind him throughout the controversy, dismissing the charges against him as a foreign conspiracy against Korean science. It is ironic, then, that young South Korean researchers have been among the most skeptical about Dr. Hwang’s claims and resolute in challenging his work.
The easiest way to end the controversy would be to replicate Dr. Hwang’s results. The fact that that has not happened yet does not necessarily mean the experiments were faked, experts say. A quicker solution is to have outside experts examine Dr. Hwang’s clones and confirm they are what he claims.
The entire controversy raises disturbing questions. Why did some of the world’s top science journals accept and publish papers that were at worst false and at best poorly presented? Why did they not notice the duplicate photos? How did leading American researchers become complicit in what appears to be fraud? (Dr. Hwang also claimed to have cloned two dogs, but there is little data to prove it; Dr. Schatten also coauthored that paper.)
Has South Korean nationalism overshadowed the search for scientific truth? Most significantly, where does this leave the millions of people who had vested their dreams in Dr. Hwang’s research? How will it influence the debate over stem-cell research?
Such work is already deeply mired in controversy as a result of ethical questions surrounding stem-cell research. Will this new dispute overshadow and influence the scientific debate? This controversy is about much more than Dr. Hwang’s research, but it is up to him to end the questions that have arisen.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.