The disgraced South Korean stem cell scientist, Woo Suk Hwang, whose spectacular fall from grace dominated the newspaper headlines early last year, has been credited with 'accidentally' creating the world's first stem cells produced from an unfertilised human egg.
An international collaboration of scientists last week published their analysis of one of Hwang's cell lines, obtained prior to the scandal, in the journal Cell Stem Cell. Whilst conclusively confirming that it was not cloned, they discovered that the cell line came from an unfertilised egg, created through parthenogenesis. The process, which has since been successfully performed by other scientists, involves forcing the cell division of an egg without it being fertilised by sperm. Parthenogenesis occurs naturally in some animals, such as lizards, but not in humans.
'I think this is an extremely important-and solid-paper', commented stem cell researcher Robert Lanza. 'It conclusively proves that the stem cell line in question was not cloned as claimed, but rather was generated through parthenogenesis', he added. Some scientists consider the creation of a parthenote as equally important to cloning. 'I think this is every bit as exciting as the SCNT [the technique used in cloning] they were claiming', said Kent Vrana of Pennsylvania State University, 'Parthenotes by their very nature are nonviable embryos, so you're not destroying embryos, which has some ethical advantages'.
The news comes as a great irony after Hwang's claims to have created the first cloned embryo were exposed as fraudulent. Hwang's journals, previously published in the publication Science, were withdrawn, his findings discredited and the reputation of the once revered South Korean national hero left in ruins. Hwang also came under intense criticism for recruiting one of his female staff to act as the egg donor, breaching bioethical research guidelines. Hwang was sacked by Seoul National University but resumed research in August last year using animals, and cloned the world's first dog- Snuppy.
Commenting on Hwang's inadvertent discovery, Kent Vrana said: 'I think they were just so blinded by what they hoped to accomplish, they missed it'. It is hoped that parthenogenesis, like cloning, may provide a source of stem cells that are genetically identical to the DNA of the egg donor. George Daley, of the Children's Hospital Boston, who authored the study, expressed Hwang's misfortune: 'It's an unfortunate irony that they didn't know what they had...It would have been a very important discovery.'