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 (SNU), used a total of 2,221 eggs from 119 women - which contradicts Hwang's assertion that only 427 eggs were used for the work. The report coincided with the retraction of a paper published in the American Journal of Bioethics (AJOB), which described the egg and body cell donation consent procedures said to have been used in the research.
The SNU scientists claimed in 2004 that they had created the world's first embryonic stem cell (ES cell) line from a cloned human embryo. But an investigation lead by SNU concluded last month that no such cell line exists. The finding completed Hwang's downfall, after a previous announcement that 11 ES cell lines genetically matched to patients, published last year, were also fabricated. The discovery that all these cell lines were fakes sent shockwaves through the scientific community, and the journal Science has now retracted both of the papers that described the work.
However, it was ethical concerns over donated eggs that first lead to Hwang's research being subjected to close scrutiny, following allegations that some junior team members had been pressured into providing eggs. These claims have been investigated by the KNBB committee, which published its midterm report on 30 January. It found that Hwang's team failed to sufficiently protect egg donors' rights, by not providing sufficient information on possible side-effects, or ensuring they signed the approved consent forms. It also says that some women made repeated donations, and that some were paid to provide eggs. 'A total of 15 out of 119 donors provided their ova [eggs] more than twice for stem cell research', said Cho Han-ik, vice president of the committee, adding that '66 out of the 119 received money in return for their donation'.
The committee says that by asking junior researchers to donate their eggs - a practice considered unethical because of the possibility of coercion - Hwang violated international ethical standards designed to protect human subjects involved in medical research. Whilst paying donors has been banned following the enactment of a new Korean bioethics law last January, such payments would still have been legal if made before that time.
On 31 January, the AJOB published a retraction of a paper outlining the consent procedures used by Hwang's team, written by Insoo Hyun and Kyu Won Jung. In a press release, Editor in Chief Glenn McGee said that it now appears likely that the egg and cell donation consent procedures described by Hyun and Jung 'were not used for donor screening and enrolment in the research that gave rise to the now discredited Science paper'. However, he stressed that neither author has been accused of any misconduct themselves.
Meanwhile, South Korean prosecutors are reported to be investigating whether US stem cell researcher Gerald Schatten was aware that the data published in the 2005 Science paper - of which he was a co-author - was fabricated. A criminal probe was launched to establish whether Hwang's team has fraudulently used 41.7 billion won (£24.1 million) of state funds. This has now been widened, to find out whether any of the payments made to egg donors were made after the practice became illegal in South Korea. Last week, prosecutors raided Hwang's home and those of eight former colleagues as part of their ongoing investigation.