Now comes word that the famed South Korean stem-cell researcher Hwang Wu-suk, who attracted so much attention earlier this year, faked his results. His close collaborator Roh Sung-Il says that the stem cells that Hwang claims to have cloned probably do not exist. He also said that leading authors of the paper have notified the journal Science that they were withdrawing the paper. Science said it had not yet heard from Hwang.
Professor Hwang's work, originally published by Science in June, was hailed as a breakthrough -- a "tremendous advance," according to Stanford University Nobelist Paul Berg. It was also used as an object lesson for retrograde American politicians -- read President Bush -- who had thrown up ethical obstacles to such important research by restricting federal funding. Americans were being left in the dust by go-ahead scientists from around the world who were not hamstrung by medieval qualms and superstitions, we were warned.
I discuss the South Korean work in my book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, published recently by Regnery. I also discuss the history of fraud in the field of cloning more generally.
If Prof. Hwang's claims had been validated, they would have been important for the following reason. The stem-cell lines he said he had created were genetically matched to the donors' DNA. Before Hwang made his claims, embryonic stem-cell therapy was unlikely to have succeeded because the transplanted tissue would likely have been recognized as "foreign" and therefore rejected by the recipient's immune system. But Hwang had obtained DNA from the nucleus of cells of prospective patients, and the resulting stem cells would be transplanted back into these donors. Ergo, there would be no rejection (ran the theory).
Now, it seems that these stem cells never existed. If so, it will be back to the drawing boards for everyone.
At this writing, Prof. Hwang is refusing to say what really happened. But if fraud is confirmed it will be a major setback for stem-cell research worldwide. The underlying science will probably have to be reviewed from scratch. The problem of immune-system rejection itself only became apparently quite recently, which is why Hwang's work was considered so important.
When I worked on the stem-cell chapter for my book, some eyebrows were raised because I declined to take the view, often adopted by conservatives, that it was the ethics of stem-cell research that needed to be questioned; the science, we should concede, was no doubt valid and above reproach.
But I had already spoken to two scientists who were familiar with work in the stem-cell field and both had told me the same thing: that the difficulties involved in "coaxing" stem cells to become specialized cells of the body were very great. In fact, one told me, embryologists had been trying for over a hundred years to understand how the cells of the developing body manage to do this in the normal course of gestation. They were unlikely to find the answer by studying these cells in isolation, or because there was political pressure to do so, or because they would be rewarded by newspaper headlines.
I therefore decided to focus on the science, which clearly had not reached the stage where it could solve these problems. The ethics could be left for another day.
The basic scientific question that must now be discussed, in reference both to embryonic stem-cell research and to the related field of cloning is this: Can these laboratory demonstrations or claims be repeated by others? This is the most basic feature of the scientific method. An experiment done by one scientist is supposed to be repeatable by another. It might not matter so much that Dr. Hwang's results were faked, if indeed they were, if other laboratories had independently managed to get the same results. But they have not been able to do so yet.
Dr. Hwang's lab in South Korea also succeeded in cloning a dog for the first time, as reported in Nature earlier this year. It was named Snuppy. Hwang and his researchers "worked for nearly three years, seven days a week, 365 days a year and used 1095 eggs from 122 dogs before finally succeeding," the New York Times reported. The painstaking creation of more than 1,000 laboratory-grown embryos "led to the birth of just two cloned puppies -- one of which died after three weeks," the Washington Post added.
By that criterion, as I said in my book, "animal cloning is more trial-and-error than science."
Has anyone been able to repeat this work with dogs? It's not clear that they have. The Post's Rick Weiss reported that Hwang's manual dexterity under the microscope was the secret of his success. This in turn Hwang attributed to "the Korean tradition of eating food with difficult-to-master steel chopsticks."
Hmmm. Maybe the Chinese will be able to carry on where the Koreans left off. But it's all beginning to look a little fishy, if you ask me, and my advice is: If you read of any more claims about therapeutic cloning and stem-cell breakthroughs, take them with a pinch of salt.