News of the WeekSTEM CELL RESEARCH

Korean Cloner Admits Lying About Oocyte Donations

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Science  02 Dec 2005:
Vol. 310, Issue 5753, pp. 1402-1403
DOI: 10.1126/science.310.5753.1402

South Korea's ambitious plans to create a World Stem Cell Hub, announced in October, were thrown into uncertainty on Thanksgiving Day when Korean researcher Woo-Suk Hwang resigned as president of the venture and from other official posts. He remains a researcher at Seoul National University. Hwang acknowledged in an emotional press conference that two researchers in his lab had donated eggs for his research, and that donors had been paid for their contributions—something he had denied for months.

The admission seems to have done little to diminish Hwang's support in Korea, where he has enjoyed rock-star status, including an “I Love Hwang Woo-Suk” fan club (cafe.daum.net/ilovehws). Colleagues have reportedly urged Hwang to stay on as leader of the country's bold bid at world leadership in stem cell research. Korean newspapers and Web sites report that sponsors are pulling ads from a TV program that uncovered alleged irregularities in Hwang's egg-collection methods, and Korean women are lining up to donate eggs for stem cell research: A group set up on 21 November to encourage egg donations (http://www.ovadonation.or.kr/) had been contacted by 800 would-be donors by the end of the week, according to a spokesperson.

Buoyed by the outpouring of public support, Hwang told Science in an e-mail that he's “considering reconsidering” his resignation. But such a turnaround seems unlikely as repercussions ripple through the global community of stem cell researchers. Most scientists would probably agree with bioethicist Insoo Hyun of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, that “he did the right thing by stepping down.”

The events that led to Hwang's downfall appear to be limited to the landmark paper he published in Science early last year announcing the world's first success in cultivating a line of stem cells from a cloned human embryo (Science, 12 March 2004, p. 1669). The consent form, summarized in supporting online materials, said the 16 donors had received “no financial payment” for the 242 eggs they contributed to the experiments, although such payments would have been legal under Korean law at the time. (Science Editor-in-Chief Donald Kennedy says a correction will be published.)

Some activists and bioethicists wondered how Hwang's team could have located so many willing egg donors. Then in May 2004, Nature reported that one of Hwang's Ph.D. students, a co-author of the paper, had said in an interview that she and another lab member had donated eggs. Such donations would be ethically questionable because students may feel pressure to donate. The student later denied it, however, pleading poor English skills, and Hwang denied that anyone from his lab had donated eggs.

A very public apology.

Woo-Suk Hwang's press conference prompted an outpouring of support in Korea but a more negative reaction elsewhere.

CREDIT: IM JAE-HWAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Rumors about possible improprieties in egg donations heated up again this fall after the 19 October unveiling of the World Stem Cell Hub based at Seoul National University. Hwang's denials began to unravel on 11 November, when his most prominent U.S. collaborator, Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, announced that he was severing ties with Hwang, claiming that Hwang had misled him (Science, 18 November, p. 1100). Ten days later, Sung-Il Roh, who runs a fertility clinic at MizMedi Hospital in Seoul that supplied eggs for Hwang's research, announced that he had paid at least 20 women about $1430 each for eggs he had furnished for the 2004 study. Roh said the collections occurred in 2002, before Korea passed a law making such payments illegal. As Hwang's work became well-known, Roh said women were willing to donate eggs without compensation. Roh insisted that Hwang did not know of the early payments.

Hwang finally came clean last week. He admitted that after receiving a call from Nature last year, he asked the two women if they had donated eggs. They confessed but “begged me not to publicize the fact” to preserve their privacy. “Now that I reflect on it,” he said, “I regret that I didn't come out with the truth.” As for payments to donors, he said, “I only found out that some of those eggs had been paid for when Dr. Roh called me a few days ago.”

The revelations prompted the ruling party in South Korea's National Assembly to announce plans to set up a new group to ponder bioethics, and the Korean Bioethics Association convened a meeting to discuss what occurred in Hwang's lab. The institutional review board of Seoul National University's veterinary college also investigated the controversy and recommended that a third party with global credibility examine the matter.

Elsewhere in Asia, researchers are feeling the ripples. Norio Nakatsuji, a stem cell researcher at Kyoto University, worries that the fallout could affect discussions on government guidelines for human embryonic stem (ES) cell research, which he fears “may become more strict because of this event.”

Arnold Kriegstein, head of the Institute of Tissue and Stem Cell Biology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), says creation of the World Stem Cell Hub may have been “premature.” He says hub officials approached UCSF as a possible location for one of the two planned subhubs for generating new lines of human ES cells. But Kriegstein says that after meeting with Hwang's delegation, “we decided not to participate,” mainly because guidelines were unclear on ethical issues such as consent forms for egg donors and the tracking of research materials. Kriegstein and others are not writing off collaboration with the Koreans, however, and they acknowledge that Hwang's published findings are not in doubt. “It's not a blow to the field but to him personally,” says Kriegstein.

In the United Kingdom, scientists have generally voiced sorrow about Hwang's mistake and pride in their own system of safeguards. “This highlights why the tough regulatory climate in the U.K. is protection rather than a problem,” said biologist Steven Minger of King's College in London.

The future of the hub is now uncertain. On 15 November, the Korean government laid out plans to invest 11.5 billion won ($11 million) in the venture and make it independent from Seoul National University. There will be no subhub in San Francisco, at least for now. It has been rebuffed by both UCSF and the new California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. And the San Francisco-based Pacific Fertility Clinic, which had agreed to help with egg collection, said last week that it had severed ties with Hwang. Ian Wilmut of the University of Edinburgh, which the hub was eyeing as its European outpost, said “we are saddened” by the events, but “I hope that we can develop collaborative links” with the Koreans.

Ironically, some maintain that Hwang now has an operation second to none in its ethical safeguards. This week, The American Journal of Ethics published an article by Hyun describing in detail the guidelines now used by Hwang's group for egg procurement, along with a commentary by Mildred Cho and David Magnus of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who say that if the outlined procedure is followed, it is “a major step toward meeting the highest standards of ethical oversight for oocyte donation.”

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