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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 January 2006, 17:53 GMT
The fall of a scientific 'rock star'

Dr Stephen Minger

Hwang supporters hold up a poster of him (AFP)
He had everything - and he threw it away
At the time I visited Hwang Woo-suk's lab last year, not only was he one of the most distinguished researchers in his field, he was also one of the most publicly adored.

He was a national hero in South Korea, his research lab was probably one of the best funded in the world, and he flew first class anywhere he wanted, any time he wanted, for free, courtesy of Korean Air.

He was treated like a rock star. His spectacular fall from one of the most envied positions in science plays out like a Greek tragedy.

To think that he would risk it all to publish a paper in Science just doesn't make sense.

It is difficult to guess his motivations. Perhaps fame and glory had clouded his vision, and made him think that he constantly had to come up with something bigger and better.

This is not about making money, this is not about getting famous, this is not about signing autographs
Dr Stephen Minger
Perhaps the rush to be first in the world to do something is what drove him to this. As a scientist, we all face pressures: from funding to wanting work to be published in the premiere journals, Nature or Science. But I just don't think that the risks that he took warranted that. It's just a paper after all.

'My family'

I think for somebody like me, who went to his lab to see what his group was capable of, it seemed that if anyone in the world was going to successfully clone a human embryo, it would be him.

I looked at the data when the paper was published as carefully as possible and was convinced that they had done it. And I think that this is one of the problems with fabrication: if you work really hard at it, you can probably get away with it - at least for a while.

A cloned human embryo which has divided to the eight-cell stage (Science)
The data he provided was convincing
I'm personally disappointed because now it's clear that he also lied about the sources of his eggs for research - paying for some and taking others from the female members of his own research team.

I asked him whether people in his lab had donated eggs, and he got very offended and said something like, "you've seen me interact with my group - they are like my family, I would never exploit my family".

However, all is not lost and I don't think that this has set the science of stem cell biology back.

In terms of somatic cell nuclear replacement, I think that other groups will try this and ultimately will be successful. It is a question of resources and expertise - I don't believe there is a fundamental biological barrier in human cells to this process.

This technique, when successful, would allow us to create stem cell lines tailored to specific patients.

It would also allow us to take people with rare or complex diseases that aren't solely genetic and to try to take stem cells from them as a tool to try to look at that disease, or to use them as a screen for new therapies.

Different routes

The scientific community is also pursuing other methods of generating stem cells; the technique employed by Hwang is really just one avenue, and a relatively fringe one at that.

Most of us are working on stem cell lines generated from embryos donated from IVF and the Korean's fall from grace doesn't affect this research at all.

In a way, this sorry affair damages science more than it damages stem cell research - it could have been cosmology, or physics or any other area of cell biology.

Stem Cell Hub poster (AFP)
The South Koreans ran a very impressive operation
Hopefully, people will look at this and see that the Hwang affair is an isolated incident. As a scientist, you live and die by your reputation and integrity.

That said, because stem cell research is such a contentious and highly emotive area, it will impact on some people's attitudes. It will further reinforce the attitudes of those who are already opposed to the field, and will probably shift the positions of those who are a bit ambivalent.

We'll just have to deal with it - and stress that the vast majority of us would never take such risks.

This is not about making money, this is not about getting famous, this is not about signing autographs.

This is about generating cells that might be useful in improving the quality of life for people who suffer from really serious diseases. That's my motivation.

If I can look back in 20 years and say that my lab helped contribute to the development of human therapies, that's the reward.

Dr Stephen Minger is senior lecturer and director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory at the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases, King's College London.

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