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Egg donation controversy threatens stem cell hub

21 November 2005
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 335

The future of an international consortium aiming to advance human embryo stem cell (ES cell) research is looking increasingly uncertain, following allegations that its South Korean head, Woo Suk Hwang, used eggs donated by a junior researcher to create cell lines. On 12 November, Gerald Schatten, from Pittsburgh University in the US, ended his 20 month collaboration with Hwang. Now, other laboratories that were to form part of Hwang's World Stem Cell Hub have also said they will be pulling out of the consortium.

Schatten worked with the Seoul National University team on research that led to world's first patient-matched ES cell lines derived from cloned embryos, published in the journal Science earlier this year. The same team announced the birth of Snuppy, the world's first cloned dog, in work published in the journal Nature in August. Previous research by the South Korean scientists resulted in the world's first ES cell-line from a cloned human embryo - an achievement that Schatten had claimed might be biologically impossible.

The team, which published its breakthrough in Science early in 2004, created 30 cloned human embryos and derived ES cells from 20 of these, from which they managed to grow one human ES cell line. But in May 2004, the origin of the 247 donated eggs used came under question. A news report published in Nature claimed that PhD student Ja Min Koo originally said that the donors had included herself and another woman who worked in Hwang's laboratory. However, the journal also stated that she later called back, to say she had not donated eggs, 'blaming her poor English for a misunderstanding'.

The controversy resurfaced last week, apparently triggered by a criminal investigation involving Hwang's collaborator Sung-il Roh, a fertility specialist at MizMedi Hospital in Seoul. According to a news report in Science, police are currently investigating whether Roh made payments to egg donors, a practice outlawed in South Korea by a new bioethics law that came into effect in January 2005. Schatten initially wrote to Science to assure the editors that no donors had been paid for eggs used in research published by the journal. However, two days later, he announced that he was ending his collaboration with Hwang because of 'a breach of trust'.

Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, announced that the journal is 'taking the allegations very seriously', and has said he will take appropriate action if they are substantiated. Meanwhile, Pacific Fertility Centre, an IVF clinic in San Francisco that was planning to be part of the World Stem Cell Hub, has announced that it will be pulling out of the consortium. The aim of the hub is 'to establish a global network on promoting stem cell research', and it had hoped to create about 100 new ES cell-lines per year, from patients with disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and Parkinson's disease. But, said Philip Chenette of the Pacific Fertility Centre, 'with Dr Schatten's withdrawal, it is impossible for us to establish the ethics of the whole thing'.

An article in the Korea Times reports that Sung-il Roh has admitted to paying donors around 1.5 million won (around £840) each, two years ago, to provide eggs for Hwang's research. Roh said he decided that a daily fee of 100,000 won would be just compensation for the inconvenience of being hospitalised and having hormone injections for the 15-day long procedure. Roh declined to comment on the allegations that junior researchers had provided eggs, but he did say that 'I can confirm Hwang himself brought some donors who were willing to give eggs without getting any costs'. Hwang has yet to respond, but has said he is investigating the allegations and will 'divulge everything' at an appropriate time. A press conference is expected later this week.

Collaborators Split Over Ethics Allegations
Science |  18 November 2005
Hwang's stem cell team paid for eggs
The Korea Times |  21 November 2005
Jabs, Honors for Stem-Cell
Wired |  16 November 2005
'Stem cell hub' cloning network project folding
The San Francisco Chronicle |  15 November 2005
Stem cell teamwork stops after split
The Scientist |  18 November 2005
26 October 2009 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
A South Korean court has convicted disgraced stem cell scientist, Hwang Woo-Suk, of embezzling funds and purchasing human eggs for research, after a trial lasting over three years. Hwang was given a two-year sentence suspended for three years by the Seoul Central District Court last week...
30 April 2006 - by BioNews 
The World Stem Cell Hub - set up last year at Seoul National University Hospital in South Korea - is the latest victim of the ongoing Korean stem cell and cloning saga. The hub, which was established to create 'a global network' of stem cell lines created in countries across the world...
27 March 2006 - by BioNews 
Seoul National University (SNU) has announced it will dismiss the discredited South Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang, for his involvement in fabricating data during his work on human embryonic stem (ES) cells. Six other professors and co-authors on two Science papers published by the group - now formally retracted - will not...
13 February 2006 - by BioNews 
Seoul National University (SNU) has suspended the discredited South Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang and six other professors in his team from their teaching and research posts. The scientists have yet to be formally punished by SNU, for faking data and breaching ethical standards in their work on human embryonic...
3 February 2006 - by BioNews 
South Korea's national bioethics committee has produced a report on the 'serious ethical problems' with the donated human eggs used in the recently discredited stem cell research carried out by Woo Suk Hwang and his team. Korea's National Bioethics Board (KNBB) says that the scientists, based at Seoul National University...
14 November 2005 - by BioNews 
A leading American stem cell researcher has abruptly ended his 20 month long collaboration with the team of South Korean scientists famous for creating the world's first human embryonic stem (ES) cell lines from cloned embryos. The same team announced in May that it had managed to derive the world's...
20 October 2005 - by BioNews 
An international consortium headed by South Korean stem cell scientist Woo Suk Hwang has announced the establishment of the World Stem Cell Hub. The consortium has set up an international bank of human embryonic stem (ES) cell lines at Seoul National University, which will have satellite laboratories in England, and...
5 August 2005 - by BioNews 
After much patience and perseverance, dogs can now officially be added to the list of animals, including sheep, cats and horses, that have been successfully cloned. Researchers in South Korea led by Professor Woo Suk Hwang - the team that created the world's first cloned human embryos - have cloned an Afghan...
6 June 2005 - by BioNews 
Woo Suk Hwang - head of the team that announced the creation of 11 patient-specific embryonic stem (ES) cell-lines recently - is planning to open an international stem cell bank in South Korea. The bank would mean that all existing human ES cell-lines would be in one place, enabling doctors to identify...
31 May 2005 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
New cell-based treatments for a range of illnesses came a step closer to reality recently, when a team of South Korean scientists announced they had created human embryonic stem (ES) cell lines genetically matched to 11 different patients. The success of Woo Suk Hwang and his colleagues confirmed his team's...
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