Blogs and the Hwang Case

A science scandal of Bre-X proportions has been developing through December engulfing both Science and Nature. New developments on Hwang’s stem cell research have been occurring daily. Hwang, like Mann, was one of Scientific American’s 50 Visionaries. Unlike Mann, he has been stripped of his title. I started looking at the story from a peer review point of view, but I find scandals interesting and have spent a few hours trying to make a chronology. Pending that, I’m posting up a few links and commenting on the fact that blogs were responsible for Hwang’s downfall – even though one of Science’s editors is spinning the story as a triumph of peer review. However, the following is a more accurate attribution of credit for exposing Hwang:

It was a group of young Koreans scientists who assiduously brought all the charges to light, posting their criticisms of Hwang on a Web site.

For background, I am a supporter of stem cell research and disagree strongly with Bush policies on this topic.

Hwang published two articles in Science (March 2004, June 2005), respectively claiming the first stem cells obtained from a cloned human embryo and the first patient-matched embryonic stem cells. A Science collation of materials, including a Dec. 23 editorial is here. In August 2005, he published an article in Nature about cloning a dog. A recent (Dec 25) story by Nicholas Wade of the New York Times is here.

Credit to the Korean bloggers is given here:

Although the new disclosures are being presented as a blow for South Korean science, they can also be seen as a triumph for a cadre of well-trained young Koreans for whom it became almost a pastime to turn up one flaw after another in his work. All or almost all the criticisms that eventually brought him down were first posted on Web sites used by young Korean scientists.

They were more skeptical of Hwang than was Schatten, who agreed to be senior co-author on Hwang’s article this June in Science, even though all the experiments had been done in Seoul. The referees and editors at Science accepted the Schatten-Hwang article without spotting the problems that later came to light, although they did ask for extra tests that may have contributed to the denouement. Science’s rival journal, Nature, accepted Hwang’s report on cloning a dog.

The debacle is particularly surprising to the many American scientists who visited Hwang’s lab at the Seoul National University and were impressed by the dedication of his 65 colleagues, the specialization of his lab into separate units for each aspect of cloning, and the technical skill of those who worked the micromanipulators used to suck the nucleus out of human cells.

The event that led to Hwang’s downfall, after a month of sniping at certain puzzling aspects of his published work, was the posting of a pair of duplicate photos on two Korean Web sites.

Another account crediting the bloggers with exposing Hwang is in the Dec. 19, 2005 Korean Times here:

It was a group of young Koreans scientists who assiduously brought all the charges to light, posting their criticisms of Hwang on a Web site. Tenacious reporting by MBC and online outlet Pressian also dogged the story, the Times noted. It all broke open when someone posted a pair of duplicate photos to two Korean Web sites. One was from Science and claimed to represent one of the lines Hwang’s team had derived from a cloned embryo using somatic cell nuclear transfer. The other, identical, photo was from the journal The Biology of Reproduction and was labeled as an ordinary embryonic cell line derived from fertility clinic embryos.

The nation’s young scientists made the allegation at the Web site of the state-backed Biological Research Information Center (, which played a pivotal role in pinpointing manipulations at Hwang’s 2005 paper on patient-specific stem cells. They claimed a cloned human embryonic stem cell photo in the 2004 paper exactly overlaps with that of a stem cell made by Mizmedi Women’s Hospital, which was presented to another journal before Hwang’s.

Here’s the image in question for the 2004 paper (this follows problems with the 2005 paper):

Original Caption: The lower part of picture B, a stem cell obtained from a fertilized egg at Mizmedi Women’s Hospital, exactly overlaps with the upper part of picture D, a cloned stem cell. This shows photos of the two cells were taken in the same culture dish.

The article goes on:

The scientists at the BRIC site argued that the overlapping means Hwang’s team took a picture of a cloned stem cell with a Mizmedi stem cell, which is not at all probable.

A research lab at Seoul National University College of Veterinary Medicine is disorganized and empty as the university’s investigation panel accelerates the probe on the stem cell data fabrication scandal, Monday. “If you made a cloned embryonic stem cell for the first time in the world, would you take its picture with another ordinary stem cell? This shows Hwang also doctored photos in the 2004 paper,” said a scientist who posted the picture in question.

In another Korean Web site, biologists also demonstrated a stem cell picture from the 2004 paper, which they contend is a duplicate of that of a Mizmedi stem cell.

The allegations stunned Hwang supporters such as Maria Biotech head Park Se-pill who established stem cells from frozen embryos in 2000 for the third time in history. “Up until now, I have believed Hwang did derive cloned embryonic stem cells although he admitted to misconduct in his follow-up paper on patient-specific stem cells,” Park said. “But my trust is seriously shaken by the doubts on the 2004 paper. Now, I am not sure whether the cloned stem cell really existed,” he added.

A link to the blog (Korean language) is here with some commentary.

I’ll be collating some more material, but I thought that the role of blogs was rather interesting and worth mentionoing in its own right.


  1. John A
    Posted Dec 26, 2005 at 3:02 PM | Permalink

    Hwang, like Mann, was one of Scientific American’s 50 Visionaries.


  2. Posted Dec 26, 2005 at 4:10 PM | Permalink

    Well, Scientific American has also defended science against the “Skeptical Environmentalist”. In summary, it looks like a pretty bad record for the tabloid.

  3. Doug L
    Posted Dec 26, 2005 at 4:17 PM | Permalink

    Did I get smarter, or did they dumb down Scientific American over the years?

    Don’t answer that :-)

  4. fFreddy
    Posted Dec 27, 2005 at 8:59 AM | Permalink

    For background, I am a supporter of stem cell research and disagree strongly with Bush policies on this topic.

    Sorry to be a bore, but does anyone know exactly what Bush’s policies are on this topic, and why ?
    (After all, “everyone knows” the only reason that the USA is not part of Kyoto is because Bush is in thrall to the oil companies …)

  5. Dave Dardinger
    Posted Dec 27, 2005 at 10:09 AM | Permalink

    Bush’s policy is that he’d allow a number of existing embryonic stem cell lines to be used for research, but that the government would spend no money to support additional lines being produced and used. But nothing prevents private individuals or companies from doing whatever they wish.

    Of course Bush and most everyone on the right supports using adult and placental stem-cell lines for research and treatment and in fact a lot of therapy has been done along those lines.

    Frankly, from a scientific viewpoint, I’d push for adult stem-cell therapy since that means whatever cells are produced should be compatable with the individual’s immune system, something which can’t be done with embryonic cell lines. I don’t really understand the push for embryos at this point except that it provides and ‘excuse’ for abortion. I can understand wanting embryonic lines in the past when there were limitations on what sort of cells could be created from adult cells, but from what I’ve been reading lately, anything embryonic cells can do, adult cells can do also.

  6. fFreddy
    Posted Dec 27, 2005 at 11:00 AM | Permalink

    Thank you, Dave. Unless anyone can challenge your facts as presented, this sounds perfectly sensible to me.

  7. Armand MacMurray
    Posted Dec 27, 2005 at 2:06 PM | Permalink

    Re: #6
    Dave, immune compatibility just depends on the DNA inside the stem cell; both embryonic and adult stem cells will be immune-compatible if they contain the same DNA as the therapy recipient (that is, if they were derived from the recipient’s cells), and both won’t if they don’t.
    The reason for the interest in embryonic stem cells is that we already know that they can produce every single cell type in the body. We don’t yet know this for the currently known universe of adult stem cell lines, although, as you note, more and more cell types are being added to the latter’s list every day. So, as a researcher, if you want to make cell type X that isn’t on that list, you need to first create an adult stem cell line that can produce it (which isn’t guaranteed to work); if you work with embryonic cells, all you need to figure out is *how* to get the line to differentiate into type X.

  8. Dave Dardinger
    Posted Dec 27, 2005 at 4:20 PM | Permalink


    Last I read, they have adult stem cells which can be differentiated into many different types of cells each.

    Yes you’re right if you have a cloned embryo from a patient you can do what you want. But that’s got the same moral problems as other sorts of embryonic stem cells (and cloning itself has other moral problems). Anyway, I’d say why not see if there are any adult cell types which can’t be produced from adult stem cells first and make exceptions if necessary? Betcha there won’t be any within 10 years. The whole embryonic stem-cell thingee will blow over in a decade or two at the outside.

    Not that this particular problem bothers me personally. IMO an enbryo only gains the right to life once implanted, via an implied consent sort of argument. [which means I don't have a moral issue per se on abortion for forcible rape, and perhaps incest.]

  9. Armand MacMurray
    Posted Dec 27, 2005 at 4:38 PM | Permalink

    Yes you’re right if you have a cloned embryo from a patient you can do what you want. But that’s got the same moral problems as other sorts of embryonic stem cells (and cloning itself has other moral problems).

    I agree; just clarifying the attraction of the embryonic lines from the researcher’s perspective.

  10. TCO
    Posted Dec 27, 2005 at 6:22 PM | Permalink

    From a purely research perspective, vivisection has much to said for it…

  11. Armand MacMurray
    Posted Dec 28, 2005 at 1:30 AM | Permalink

    Re: #11
    Problem is, I just can’t seem to track you down when I’m in the mood for it… :)

  12. TCO
    Posted Dec 28, 2005 at 9:11 AM | Permalink

    I lub you too. Smackers!

  13. John A
    Posted Dec 28, 2005 at 10:26 AM | Permalink

    Meanwhile Gavin is lecturing us all on RealClimate on “How to be a Real Sceptic”.

    Real sceptics are obviously people who hide their data from “contrarians”, the nasty people who ask for the data.

  14. Pat Keating
    Posted Feb 15, 2008 at 1:24 PM | Permalink

    Is that you, Mosher?

  15. steven mosher
    Posted Feb 15, 2008 at 9:43 PM | Permalink

    re 15. Huh? They have still not figured out the moshpit at tamino or RC.
    They still believe I am a person with beliefs.

    The science is settled. If I believe it’s not, and they refuse debate, what rhetorical
    options does one have at ones disposal?

    (Many actually. I will not list them. )

    I find I can have rational discussions here, where questions and doubts and concerns are not
    treated as heresy. I also have fun here.

  16. davidc
    Posted Feb 20, 2009 at 8:39 PM | Permalink

    A contol study (1989, before blogs) might be William McBride. He was a hero because of thalidomide. In the early eighties many people knew that something was wrong at Foundation 41 but (as usual) everyone thought that it was someone else’s job to blow the whistle. I’m sure from what I heard that it would have been on the web had it been available. In the end his clinical colleagues weighed in which I think was the main blow. Of course his defence (against fabricating data) was that this was just a pesky experimental hitch and he knew perfectly well from other considerations what the results should be.

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