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 (bric.postech.ac.kr), 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.