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Last Updated: Wednesday, 11 January 2006, 16:39 GMT
South Korea's cloning controversy

By Susan Watts
Science Editor, Newsnight

There can have been few falls as spectacular as that of the South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk.

An image of cells magnified under a microscope

Only last summer his government gave him the Orwellian title of "Supreme Scientist".

They promised funding of up to $15m after he claimed to have extracted human stem cells from embryos he had cloned.

But early on Tuesday morning, Seoul National University confirmed what many of the world's stem cell scientists had feared - that Dr Hwang's human cloning claims were fake.

He could face 10 years in prison if found guilty of misusing state funds.

The investigation panel did offer Dr Hwang one small saving grace - finding that Snuppy, his claimed "world first" cloned dog, is genuine.

'Huge disappointment'

His agricultural work may well prove solid, but the human cloning elements of Dr Hwang's research look set to go down in history as one of the biggest scientific frauds of all time.

Dr Hwang Woo-suk
Dr Hwang's research could go down as one of the biggest scientific frauds of all time
Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the UK's Medical Research Council, told Newsnight on Monday: "These stories coming out of South Korea - the whole of which we're not yet aware of - have been a huge disappointment to science - in general."

Human cloning science offers the possibility that stem cells harvested from these embryos could be used to treat diseases like Parkinson's, diabetes and heart disease.

'Holy Grail'

Other teams around the world have produced human stem cells - from spare IVF embryos.

A London lab produced the UK's first human stem cell line in 2003.

It was easy to believe that they had accomplished this when you looked at how they worked and the sheer technical expertise that they had
Dr Stephen Minger on Dr Hwang's claims
But Dr Hwang's work appeared to be so much further ahead than anybody else's.

The stem cells he said he had created were from human embryos cloned to be a perfect match with the patient.

This could have meant stem cell treatments that would not be rejected by the patient's own body.

It was the Holy Grail of stem cell science.

Dr Stephen Minger, from the pioneering stem cell team at London's Kings College, visited Dr Hwang's South Korean lab to check out his cloning - or cell nuclear transfer - techniques.

He told the programme: "I think it's very distressing. I mean, many of us respected Professor Hwang - I went to his laboratory in Korea last October and was absolutely flabbergasted by the research team that he'd put together - the intensity with which these people worked, the sheer volume of nuclear transfers they did a day...

"Using predominantly animal eggs and cells they did on average 1,000 to 1,500 nuclear transfers a day, every day, 365 days a year.

"It was just incredible. And so it was easy to believe that they had accomplished this when you looked at how they worked and the sheer technical expertise that they had."

It all started to go wrong in November last year.

Dr Hwang was forced to admit that female researchers in his own lab had supplied eggs for his research themselves.

The American co-author on the crucial May 2005 paper - Gerald Schatten - broke off their collaboration.

The Hwang scandal

The Dr Hwang scandal revolves around two key scientific papers, both published in Science magazine.

What really matters is making sure that the technologies will get there to give treatments to people
Professor Alison Murdoch
One, from May 2005, claimed he had created 11 stem cell lines from patients - each tailored to that individual. This was revealed as unfounded over Christmas.

The other, from February 2004, claimed he had created the world's first cloned human embryos.

The fraud has clearly perplexed his peers.

"It really raises the issue of why he might have done this?" Dr Stephen Minger said.

"He was clearly a pioneer in somatic cell nuclear transfer - they've created large herds of cloned cows and cloned pigs, he has intentions of cloning Korean tigers - because it's an endangered species in Korea.

"Why would someone throw away a very good research career for a paper?"

As Dr Hwang's now discredited 2005 paper was being announced, a British team told the world on the same day that it had created the first cloned human embryo outside of South Korea.

A British laboratory
There will be a practical impact of the Hwang case on stem cell science
Dr Hwang's demise puts Professor Alison Murdoch's team ahead of the game.

Professor Murdoch herself told Newsnight: "I don't think it's particularly helpful to think of this as actually a race between scientists to achieve the end because what really matters is making sure that the technologies will get there to give treatments to people, in the long run, and of course stem cell science as such is a much larger thing than nuclear transfer - this is only a very small part of it."

Future impact

So what of the hopes of the chronically ill and disabled from stem cell science?

There will be a practical impact - setting back this particular approach by months, if not years.

But the damage shouldn't prove irreparable. Dr Stephen Minger summed up: "It is important to remember that cloning and stem cells are different things, and that stem cell lines have been, and continue to be, made without using nuclear transfer."

Indeed it looks unlikely to be practical to create a cloned source of stem cells for each of us - given the huge number of eggs needed to create one successful clone.

The current scientific vogue is for a more "generic" approach - where patients get a "best fit" stem cell treatment that their body may not reject outright, but will still require immuno-suppressive drugs.

Dr Hwang maintains he has been the victim of an elaborate sabotage; and this astonishing tale is far from over.

American collaborators of Dr Hwang's are facing growing questions now over exactly what was the extent of their involvement in his work.

Scientist's embryo cloning faked
11 Jan 06 |  Asia-Pacific
The fall of a scientific 'rock star'
10 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
Science takes stock after clone row
10 Jan 06 |  Science/Nature
Profile: Hwang Woo-suk
23 Dec 05 |  Asia-Pacific


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