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Inquiry into embryo stem cell research launched

9 December 2005
By BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 338

The University of Pittsburgh has begun an investigation into research carried out by Korean stem cell scientist Woo Suk Hwang and his former collaborator Gerald Schatten. The celebrated paper, published by Science earlier this year, described the derivation of 11 cloned human embryonic stem cell (ES cell)-lines from patients with diabetes, spinal injury or a blood disorder. Hwang has since notified the editors of Science about two corrections to the original paper, the latest of which was submitted on 4 December.

Hwang recently quit his public positions after admitting that his team had used eggs provided by junior researchers and paid donors. The shock resignation followed a statement by US scientist Gerald Schatten, in which he ended his 20 month collaboration with Hwang over the allegations. At the time, scientists around the world expressed sadness over the unethical sourcing of eggs by the Korean scientists, but insisted that their actions did not affect the scientific validity of their work.

Last month, Hwang told the Science editors that a table showing all 11 cell-lines were 'pluripotent' - capable of developing into any cell type - was inaccurate, and that only three of the cell-lines had actually passed this test. Then, on 4 December, he alerted the editors to duplicate images published online, which were supposed to show different cell-lines. These images were provided by Gerald Schatten, of Pittsburgh University, who received them from a student working in Hwang's laboratory. According to Katrina Kelner, Science deputy editor for life sciences, the duplicate pictures were not part of the main paper, but were sent in response to a request for higher-resolution images. 'From the information that we have so far, it seems there was an honest mistake', she said, adding 'we have no evidence there was any intent to deceive'.

A spokesperson for the University of Pittsburgh has said that its office of research integrity has now launched an inquiry into the matter. She said that Schatten and his team are 'carefully going through the data' to find out how the mistake might have happened, and added that Schatten would not comment during the investigation. Arthur Levine, the university's senior vice-chancellor for health sciences, called the inquiry 'somewhat unprecedented'. He said it was being carried out to 'reassure the public', and not because anyone had alleged misconduct.

Meanwhile, Seoul National University, where Hwang and his team carried out their research, has also announced that it will carry out an investigation into the validity of the research. The university is to establish a 10-member panel that will look at Hwang's original data, although it has not yet said whether independent tests will be conducted. This Monday, nearly three weeks after leaving his post and publicly apologising for 'ethical lapses', Hwang returned to his lab at the university to face the 'bigger questions'. Last week, it was reported that he was in hospital suffering from exhaustion.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Landmark Paper Has an Image Problem
Science |  9 December 2005
Pitt starts inquiry into technical problems in stem cell reports
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette |  8 December 2005
S.Korea stem cell pioneer back in lab, inquiry due
Reuters |  12 December 2005
TV tests call into question cloner's stem-cell success
Nature |  8 December 2005
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