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.