As a scientist, you can win a Nobel prize in three basic ways. Some discoveries fall into a researcher’s lap, unexpectedly, when they think they’re working on something else. To cite a classic example, in 1928 Alexander Fleming discovered pennicillin when a mysterious fungus killed off bacteria that he was using for influenza research. Sometimes the prize rewards a researcher who attacks a known topic but does so with a flair and persistence that singlehandedly gives the topic clarity and new life. I had the good fortune to recently see a talk by an excellent recent example of this in the person of Linda Buck, whose work on the way that our olfactory receptors (smell and pheromones) work earned her the 2004 Nobel in physiology and medicine. You could say that Max Planck and Albert Einstein had a similar effect on the then-hidebound field of Newtonian physics.
Nobel prizes reward a third, and I would say distinct type of work – the race by huge, well-funded labs to solve extremely high-profile problems. In this case everybody in science knows that the first person to reach finish line X, whether it be the first vaccine, the molecular structure of DNA or the sequence of the human genome, has a Nobel prize teed up and waiting. The pressure can be enormous, the money flows like water and the top people get used to reporters camped out on their front porch. The pressure and the profile of these contests can create an almost unbearable urge to fudge, to cut corners and to mislead the competition in people already inclined towards that sort of thing. A case in point being the amazing, meteoric rise and the meteoric flame-out of the stem-cell researcher Dr. Hwang Woo Suk. Read the story on the flip.
You can hardly find a better example of a modern-day Nobel race than the quest for therapeutic stem cell technology. These protean cells form the blank slate from which the body makes every other type of cell in our body; when we master the way that these cells grow and differentiate we will have the ability to heal tissues that won’t heal on their own such as the heart or the brain, broken spinal cords may heal and potentially we could regrow entire lost limbs. In some cases amazing therapeutic effects have come from simply injecting stem cells into damaged tissues. We only have an idea exactly how much power therapeutic stem cells will give to medicine, but an idea is enough.
It would be wonderful to simply reach into a patient and extract stem cells, but for most purposes you can’t. The types of stem cell that you find in an adult have already taken a few steps down the road of becoming bone, skin or brain, and aren’t nearly as useful as the cells found in an embryo or, to a lesser degree, the umbilical cord. Some parents have the foresight and the funds to culture and freeze their infant’s umbilical cells but you or I can’t do that. Tissue matching problems make it as difficult to donate stem cells (say, from a newborn’s umbilical) as it is to donate a heart or a liver.
Enter Dr. Hwang Woo Suk of Seoul National University (SNU). What if we could pull the nucleus out of a skin cell and swap it into a ‘pluripotent’ stem cell donated from, say, an egg or umbilical cord? You or I could have any kind of stem cell that we want, and they’d be ‘ours.’ Problems with tissue matching simply wouldn’t exist.
For a while Dr. Hwang seemed like an unstoppable juggernaut. His laboratory cut its teeth by cloning a dog, which at that time was a fairly impressive achievement. The discoveries that came next put him on a whole new level. In 2004 Hwang’s lab announced that they had made the first-ever stem cell line cloned from an adult patient. In answer to questions about the prohibitive difficulty that they faced in making the first line, Hwang’s lab followed up with a paper in 2005 describing a streamlined procedure that they used to make eleven lines of patient-specific stem cells. American scientists like myself accepted as fact that Korea had left us badly in the dust, but in fact Dr. Hwang’s flame-out had already started.
Three months after Hwang’s 2004 paper the journal Nature printed accusations (subscriber-only) that Hwang paid women to donate eggs for his project, a major breach of ethics at the time an now illegal. The questions lingered for over a year until Hwang was forced to admit in November 2005 that he had lied about his sources of human eggs. The truth was, in fact, even worse: junior researchers have recently testified that Hwang, their boss, coerced them into the painful and medically risky procedure.
Still, things got worse. Growing scrutiny of Dr. Hwang’s work revealed that key images purporting to be different cell lines turned out to be duplicates, throwing the existence of eleven separate stem cell lines into doubt, and a co-author went public with concerns that Hwang faked his data. The few hundred eggs that Hwang claimed to require for his eleven stem cell lines turned out to be more like 1,600, pretty much abnegating his reputation as a master of efficiency. Finally, in what must have seemed like a good idea at the time Hwang demanded in early December that Seoul National University do a full review of his work.
The review didn’t help Hwang. In fact, the report released today essentially buries him.
Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, the South Korean researcher who claimed to have cloned human cells, fabricated evidence for all of that research, according to a report released today by a Seoul National University panel investigating his work.
Chung Myunghee, the head of Seoul National University’s investigatory panel, spoke to reporters in Seoul about the findings.
The finding strips any possibility of legitimate achievement in human cell cloning from a researcher who had been propelled to international celebrity and whose promise to make paralyzed people walk had been engraved on a Korean postage stamp.
In his string of splashy papers, his one legitimate claim was to have cloned the dog he named Snuppy, the panel said.
A sad story. When you work on a project whose payoff practically guarantees fame and fortune, pressure and media attention can bring out the very worst. Dr. Hwang is a stigma that the dedicated people working on the next great medical breakthrough simply don’t need.