Stem Cell Scandal
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SUSAN DENTZER: In the annals of modern science, Woo Suk Hwang’s rise to prominence was swift and his fall from grace even faster still.
In high-profile papers published in scientific journals, the South Korean veterinarian claimed to have made spectacular advances in human cloning and embryonic stem cell research.
But now it appears that much if not all of that work was faked, and that Hwang stands accused of massive scientific fraud.
Last Friday, a panel from Seoul National University in South Korea announced it had found deliberate deception in some of Hwang’s research. Published in the journal Science in June 2005, that work had supposedly demonstrated the creation of eleven colonies, or lines, of embryonic stem cells genetically matched to nine different people.
JUNG-HYE ROE, Dean of Research, Seoul National University (Translated): The data in the 2005 Science paper cannot be some error from a simple mistake, but can be seen as a deliberate fabrication to make it look like eleven stem cell lines using results from just two.
SUSAN DENTZER: The panel said it was continuing to investigate whether all 11 of the stem cell lines were completely faked. It also said it was looking into other aspects of Hwang’s work, including an August 2005 paper in the journal Nature, in which Hwang claimed to have created the first cloned dog.
For his part, Hwang has acknowledged “fatal errors” in the 2005 Science report. He’s asked the journal to withdraw the paper. He’s also quit his posts at Seoul National University and at the helm of South Korea’s new Center for Embryonic Stem Cell Research. He spoke briefly at a news conference last week in Seoul.
DR. WOO SUK HWANG (Translated): I sincerely apologize for creating shock and disappointment.
SUSAN DENTZER: The question now is what impact the revelations could have on science in general, and in particular, on the controversial fields of cloning and stem cell research.
Much of the reason Hwang’s work gained so much attention was that it seemed to herald a new future of regenerative medicine when stem cells genetically matched to individual humans could be used to repair their damaged tissues and organs.
In the U.S., Hwang’s work was also seen as politically charged.
SPOKESPERSON: The President of the United States.
SUSAN DENTZER: That’s because it was precisely the type of work that could not be carried out with federal funding under limits President George Bush imposed on embryonic stem cell research. The president spoke about those limits at the White House last spring.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Research on stem cells derived from human embryos may offer great promise, but the way those cells are derived today destroys the embryo.
SUSAN DENTZER: The publications Science and Nature are now conducting their own investigations into Hwang’s work. Those inquiries could shed light on how such a flagrant scientific fraud could have gone undetected in the first place.
GWEN IFILL: Ray Suarez has more on this story.
RAY SUAREZ: How does fraud of this scale happen, and what does it mean for the scientific community? For that we are joined by: Donald Kennedy, editor of the journal Science, where Dr. Hwang’s work was published last summer — for the record, Mr. Kennedy also serves as an advisor to The NewsHour science unit; Laurie Zoloth, director of the Center of Bioethics, Science and Society at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of medicine; and Dr. David Scadden; he is a doctor and researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital– he is also the co-director of the Harvard University Stem Cell Institute.
RAY SUAREZ: And, Dr. Scadden, if someone makes what in this case was meant to be landmark work — not just incremental steps forward but a really big breakthrough in science — how does it get disseminated normally to the rest of the world and how can the rest of the world operate normally with confidence that the research wasn’t faked?
DR. DAVID SCADDEN: Well, usually what happens is this is reviewed by scientists who have expertise in the area. They carefully review the information. And then they actually give a feedback to the scientist who has provided that data to improve the quality of the report.
It’s then reviewed by editors at a journal and then it’s disseminated through the journal to the public. That allows the — both the lay public to then review it in terms of the interpretation by the press but also then scientists can repeat the work.
And that’s really the critical step that validates it. The scientific method assures that it be repeated and replicated before it is regarded as fact. That’s something that had not been done in this work and still was regarded as, therefore, somewhat still unproven in the scientific community though warmly endorsed because it represented such an important breakthrough.
RAY SUAREZ: At the outset you said that scientists review the work. How do they review it? Do they just take the data and the written material that’s produced by the original team and look it over?
DR. DAVID SCADDEN: That’s right. So the data is provided in a fairly complex format that usually is a set of studies that are commonly used by other scientists, and so there’s a fair amount of similar language that’s used in these kinds of reports. You then assess that information. You ask as to whether or not it’s been validated with other independent experiments that usually is provided in the text that you review.
And unfortunately you don’t have the opportunity to really see the primary information other than what’s given to you by the scientists. But science is really based on trust like most other human endeavors and so when that information is provided as long as it has the credibility of coming from a person of some reputation done with methods that are accepted methods and where the details are sufficiently clear that you feel this information makes sense and has the validity you anticipate for a series of studies that give multiple perspectives on the issue, you then regard it as something that is worthy of publication.
RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor Zoloth, is that process that Dr. Scadden just described really the beginning of something rather than the end of it?
LAURIE ZOLOTH: It is indeed. And one of the things that ethicists can do, as watchers of science and as scientists ourselves is ask the scientists to tell us what’s true, what’s real, what story can be trusted.
We need to begin with knowing and trusting in this story before we can think about what makes this science morally important, what direction should we take as we pursue this science, how should societies fund and support the science; what other questions, non-scientific questions but thoughtful, moral questions need to be asked about the endeavor, the nature, the goal, the meaning of the science. But without that core of trust about the facts, about what has happened, we can’t know if the science is morally good if we don’t know if in fact if it’s true.
So it all begins with that truthful relationship. We can hope that with good codes and good oversight and good law and a good process, a good scientific process, that the story is true and then we can do the kind of work that theoreticians, and moral philosophers and politicians and policy-makers in the public have to do in thinking through what it means for us, but without the core, without each scientist with full integrity facing his peers or facing the test tube alone in the lab in the dark with nobody watching, without that moral gesture being completely honest we really can’t make our steps and our oversights have any real meaning.
I want to say one thing before we start is we still don’t know what really happened in those labs in Korea. We don’t know the whole story. There’s going to be much more revealed that will tell us about what went awry in this secrecy of those labs.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, that’s just where I was going to do with Donald Kennedy and wonder, sir, what have you been able to figure out so far on how this fraud got through and into the pages of your journal?
DONALD KENNEDY: It’s not our happiest day at Science, Ray. What we’ve done, of course, is to review the peer review process as we engaged in it with the Hwang papers. It was a pretty rigorous process.
I think I would not have chosen different reviewers or different editors, had I to do it over again. We’ve had three cases of rather well thought-of experiments in my time as editor-in-chief of Science that turned out to be fraudulent. And in each case, I’ve had to try to point out to people that the peer review system is extremely good at detecting error or false reasoning or unjustified conclusions drawn from the data.
It is not good at detecting very cleverly constructed fraud committed by very, very capable scientists, which Dr. Hwang was and is.
RAY SUAREZ: So if people at the outset intend to deceive or feel that because things are not coming out the way they intended they are going to start fabricating results, it’s harder to root that out, you say?
DONALD KENNEDY: Considerably harder, and in this case, as Professor Zoloth says, it’s very, very difficult for us to know at this point whether this started out as a plan to commit fraud or whether it evolved into one as some failures occurred in the experiment.
I’m not trying to excuse it. I am trying to explain to everybody that, as Dr. Scadden said, it all depends on trust at the end, and the journal has to trust its reviewers; it has to trust the source. It can’t go in and demand the data books. What it can do is to make sure that its process is as good as it can be.
RAY SUAREZ: But you’ve already said that you wouldn’t change much about the structure of the way peer review works. Could there be, should there be, a closer collaboration between the reviewers and the work they’re reviewing?
No one had seen, for instance, the South Korean lab work in person. It was just pages sent, I guess, by fax or by e-mail. Is there some way to really look at the work before it makes it into the pages of Science?
DONALD KENNEDY: We can look at photographs to see if they’ve been through some kind of photo shop procedure that improves them. We can make judgments about the way conclusions are drawn from data presented.
What we can’t do is ask our peer reviewers to go into the laboratories of the submitting authors and demand their lab notebooks. Were we to do that, we would create a huge administrative cost, and we would in some sense dishonor and rob the entire scientific enterprise of the integrity that 99.9 percent of it has.
RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Scadden, is there no way to build in tougher safeguards so that once something is peer reviewed and makes it into journals and makes it into the daily newscasts and the front pages of newspapers that there’s a strong chance that it’s true and you can believe it?
DR. DAVID SCADDEN: Well, one of the fundamental aspects of science is that it needs to be replicated. And so if there is a major story that breaks, many laboratories rush to try to accomplish the same.
When that has been accomplished, then it’s really regarded broadly as a scientific fact. And until then, it still is frankly something that needs verification.
And I agree with Dr. Kennedy. I think it’s very difficult to ask a reviewer to be highly suspicious of the integrity of the material that’s provided for them. In some ways the example of Dr. Hwang provides a clear example of why there’s such a tremendous disincentive for this kind of activity to happen. This gentleman’s career and probably his life is ruined.
As scientists, we clearly are called to this to try to create new knowledge. And to have it be so terribly corrupted is fortunately a rare event but one that is very difficult to ensure against.
RAY SUAREZ: Are you saying that, in fact, it was only a matter of time until Woo Suk Hwang’s problems were discovered, that this couldn’t have gone on very much longer?
DR. DAVID SCADDEN: I think that’s absolutely right. I think as laboratories have tried to reproduce this work, the problems would have become much more evident. A lot of effort has been made already by people to go visit his laboratories, to understand exactly what he’s doing that has distinguished his work from others.
That would become something that was patently clear as being incorrect and falsified. And fortunately the process does eventually work. In this case, it unfortunately worked after this had been touted as a major breakthrough.
RAY SUAREZ: Dr. Zoloth, does this now cast into doubt all the legitimate work that’s being done or much of the legitimate work being done in stem cell research?
LAURIE ZOLOTH: It would be a tragedy if it did because so much of the work that’s being done in slow and careful and thoughtful ways doesn’t rely on some somatic cell nuclear transfer and does rely, in fact, on the public’s trust and optimism about the future.
I think what it does is it calls us to even sharper attention and a sharper sense of irony about how we hear news and how we wait with perhaps more patience for results to be replicated.
Interestingly enough, part of the puzzle of this case is if the lab was thrown open and many scientists had looked at it, had heard the papers and had actually gone and seen the lab piece by piece as the process unfolded, so it will call us to even greater attention to how that oversight happens.
I want to also stress that it needs a reexamination not only in the science and in the photographs and in the details, which are still yet to be uncovered, but in weather the ethical guidelines that were so carefully constructed for this work in particular were followed, whether the donors were really given full, informed consent, what really was the story at MizMedi Hospital.
So there’s much more story to uncover so we can fully understand the process. People have a right and have a duty on both sides of this argument about what’s the right thing to do and how best to proceed and how ought we to act to learn the facts before we rush to a judgment.
What we can know now seems fairly dreadful but there is still more to understand. I think understanding that and still remaining optimistic about the best kind of science that can go on and as Dr. Kennedy said in 99 percent of the labs does go on, is carefully reviewed, long discussions around how the peer review is submitted, how the publication ought to be written, we can still have optimistic thoughts about the process, about the scientific integrity of the individual researchers and I think fundamentally about the stem cell research itself which has excited I think for good reason the hopes and the dreams and the aspirations of so many of our nation’s best scientists.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor Zoloth, gentlemen, thank you all.