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Investigations Document Still More Problems for Stem Cell Researchers

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Science  10 Feb 2006:
Vol. 311, Issue 5762, pp. 754-755
DOI: 10.1126/science.311.5762.754

SEOUL—The accusations surrounding Woo Suk Hwang's discredited stem cell research have gone from bad to worse. Last week, a report from the South Korean National Bio-ethics Committee said that Hwang and his team seriously violated basic ethical rules in their collection of human oocytes and that some of the 119 donors became severely ill as a result of the procedure. The government's auditor also said on Monday that it so far could not account for $2.6 million in research funds that Hwang had received. And there could be more to come: At least five investigations are continuing in South Korea and the United States.

Warm reception.

Jong Hyuk Park, a member of Hwang's team, is mobbed by reporters when he returned to Seoul last week from the United States to talk to prosecutors.

CREDIT: YONHAP NEWS AGENCY

The initial results of the audit have been referred to South Korean prosecutors, who are investigating potentially criminal aspects of the saga. Meanwhile, investigations are under way at Science, which published both of Hwang's now-discredited papers claiming to have derived embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos, and at two U.S. universities where Hwang co-authors work.

On 6 February, the South Korean government's auditor said in a report that Hwang could not account for how he spent a significant sum of his research money, which included $31.8 million (30.9 billion won) in public funds and $6.2 million (6 billion won) from private sources. The Bureau of Audit and Inspection said Hwang could not prove how he used $1.07 million from the state and $1.6 million in private funds. Hwang also deposited public and private funds into his personal account and withdrew money for purposes “outside of research,” the report says, although auditors do not know exactly how the funds were spent.

Some apparently went to lab members involved in the scandal. Shortly after questions were raised last fall about how Hwang obtained oocytes, news media reported that two of his co-authors who were working at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jong Hyuk Park and Sun Jong Kim, together received a total of $50,000 from Hwang's associates. (Seoul National University officials said in December that Kim turned over $30,000 that he had been given.) The auditors say this money came from the funds Hwang received from private sources.

In a separate investigation, the National Bioethics Committee said in an interim report released 2 February that Hwang's team received at least 2221 oocytes from 119 women between November 2002 and December 2005, 160 more than Seoul National University reported last month. (In their papers, Hwang and his colleagues reported using only 427 oocytes.) Citing “serious ethical violations,” the panel also found that Hwang's team failed to fully explain the potential risks associated with oocyte donation and that the Institutional Review Boards at Hanyang University's medical center and Seoul National University provided insufficient oversight.

The panel says that a significant number of women who donated through MizMedi Hospital developed ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, a side effect of the drugs given to oocyte donors. Fifteen out of the 79 MizMedi donors were treated for the syndrome, which can cause nausea in mild cases and liver and kidney damage in severe cases. The committee said two donors were hospitalized. The report also said that some women who suffered from health effects went on to donate again despite the risks.

Among the 119 donors, 66 received compensation. The committee said it is still looking into whether any of the payments occurred after 1 January 2005, when a law went into effect prohibiting such payments.

That is one of the questions the Seoul Central District Prosecutors' Office is trying to answer as a special team questions key figures associated with Hwang's fabricated re-search. As prosecutors try to pinpoint who did what in the labs, they are also looking into whether Hwang misused public funds and whether someone at MizMedi Hospital, which collected oocytes for his research, switched his cloned embryonic stem cells with fertilized ones, as Hwang contends. The prosecutors continue to interview lab members, and they raided Hwang's home for a second time last week. They have also asked University of Pittsburgh professor and co-author Gerald Schatten to travel to South Korea for questioning. University spokesperson Jane Duffield said Schatten would seek legal advice on how to respond. She said the university's own investigation was likely to finish in mid-February.

Sung Il Roh, director of MizMedi Hospital, told Science that he expects to talk to the prosecutors by next week. Jong Hyuk Park and Sun Jong Kim have already been questioned, and prosecutors are expected to call co-author and former MizMedi researcher Hyun Soo Yoon, now a professor at Hanyang University.

The revelations about oocyte donations have triggered the retraction of yet another paper associated with Hwang's work (Science, 20 January, p. 321). On 31 January, the American Journal of Bioethics announced that it is retracting a paper about ethics and egg donation that appears in its January-February issue. The article, by ethics and legal expert Koo Won Jung of Hanyang University and bioethicist Insoo Hyun of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, is based in part on visits to Hwang's lab last summer. Hyun says the article, which first appeared online in November, is being withdrawn because it contains descriptions of lab practices that it is now clear were not followed.

Jose Cibelli, who was a co-author on Hwang's 2004 paper, has also requested that Michigan State University investigate his role in the work.

Science will be conducting an internal review this month, and an external review led by outside scientists will take place in March and report its findings in April. John Brauman, a chemist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and chair of Science's senior editorial board, will head the external panel, which will examine both how the Hwang papers were handled and Science's policies in general. “They will be given whatever they want,” says Monica Bradford, Science's executive editor.

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