Monday, December 12, 2005

"I had no choice but to follow (Hwang's) instruction."

Words reportedly spoken by Kim Seon-jong, one of Hwang Woo-suk's junior researchers on the Seoul National University project for genetically engineering stem cells.

On Saturday evening, my wife was reading something in Korean on Yahoo News and called my attention to Kim's reported words:

"This article says that Professor Hwang told one of his researchers to create pictures of stem cells."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

I'd been following the controversy in the Korean English papers, which don't always give specific details or which garble reports in translation. Several times, I've read that Hwang took soma cells and inserted them into egg cells. Here's an example from the Korea Herald (Jin Hyun-joo, "MBC apologizes for coercive interviews on Hwang's work," December 5, 2005) of this sort of reporting:
In its paper published in May in Science, Hwang's team said it took somatic cells from patients and put them into donated human eggs to create stem cells tailored for patients.
That would be an odd thing to do. Surely, what is meant is that Hwang took the genetic material from soma cells and inserted it into the nuclei of egg cells that had been stripped of their DNA. Given the lack of accurate, specific information, I was very interested in what my wife could tell me from the online article.

"It's not really clear," my wife said, "but it seems to say that Professor Hwang ordered one of his researchers to make up pictures of stem cells from two pictures."

"You mean," I asked, checking for clarification, "as if they were pictures of different stem cells?"

"It seems so," she agreed.

Well, that report has now come out in English. According to Jin Hyun-joo, "Stem-cell scientist accused of fabricating data in paper," Korea Herald, December 12, 2005 (Hat Tip, Lost Nomad), junior researcher Kim Seon-jong 'admitted' to MBC television's investigative journalism program "PD Notebook" that Professor Hwang had told him to fabricate evidence:
Stem-cell pioneer Hwang Woo-suk has been accused of fabricating data in his groundbreaking research published in the journal Science.

In May, his team announced that it had successfully produced 11 different stem cells tailored to individual patients, paving the way for the development of therapies for hard-to-cure diseases.

However, Kim Seon-jong, Hwang's junior researcher, said Hwang had asked him to make up 11 different stem-cell images out of two cells for publication in Science, according to a transcript of his interview in October with the MBC television network.

"I felt burdened because I was not supposed to do that. But I had no choice but to follow (Hwang's) instruction." Kim, a co-author of Hwang's paper, told a producer of "PD Notebook," an investigative news program.

The transcript was disclosed Saturday by an internet news outlet "Pressian." Hwang's team did not comment on the matter.
Now, this is being reported by Jin Hyun-joo, the same person who wrote that Hwang put somatic cells into eggs cells, so I've reason to be cautious, but if this is true, it raises very serious doubts about Hwang's research generally.

But the facts will need to be verified first. For instance, the researcher, Kim Seon-jong, was quoted in Jin Hyun-joo's earlier article as saying something rather different:
One of the researchers denied MBC-TV's allegation that he made a crucial statement about the authenticity of Hwang's pioneering work of cloning stem cells.

MBC-TV admitted that they used coercion during the interview and pledged to take disciplinary measures against the producers.

MBC-TV previously claimed that its producers obtained a "crucial statement" from the scientist that suggested Hwang's research was not genuine.

The scientist, Kim Seon-jong, denied the claim.

"I never made such a statement," Kim told [local cable channel] YTN. "I clearly said that the claim about fake cells (which the MBC staff raised) is not true. I confirmed my statement later," he said.
Now, assuming that these two reports are referring to the same allegation, namely, that Hwang ordered Kim to fabricate images of stem cells (unless "fake cells" refers to the original stem cells themselves rather than images), then we have a report of the denial about a week before a clear report of the allegation.

By "clear" report, I mean the actual words of the alleged admission of fraud made by Kim Seon-jong.

I emphasize "alleged" because MBC's "PD Notebook" program has been criticized for using "coercion" in its questioning of Kim Seon-jong and another researcher, Park Jong-hyuk, who said (in the earlier report):
"I was told that now that the cells have turned out to be fake, Hwang would be arrested by the prosecution and Hwang's paper would be cancelled. An investigation can be conducted in the United States, too."
If Park is telling the truth, then "PD Notebook" lied to Kim and Park in saying that Hwang's stem-cell results were already known to be fake.

All of this needs to be sorted out, and I see from my hard copy of today's Korea Herald, which has just arrived, that Hwang has asked his university -- Seoul National University -- to examine his research to clear up suspicions concerning fabricated data.

Suspicions certainly need some clearing up, for despite Kim Seon-jong's denial about having fabricated the pictures of stem cells, I find it hard to understand why a researcher would invent such a specific story about that. Let's keep in mind the report:
Kim Seon-jong, Hwang's junior researcher, said Hwang had asked him to make up 11 different stem-cell images out of two cells for publication in Science, according to a transcript of his interview in October with the MBC television network.
MBC's "PD Notebook" reporters may have lied to Kim Seon-jong to get information, but would they have invented an admission of this sort by Kim?

I rather think not, but I can't exclude the possibility, for on one side or the other, somebody is telling some big lies.


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