Saturday, December 24, 2005

My first irate commenter!

Or maybe he's just annoyed. Or mildly put out. Or even agreeing with me. I'm not sure.

The comment came in response to my post on "Hwang Woo-suk's Accusation," in which I analyzed Hwang's accusation that someone on his team with connections to MizMedi had stolen his patient-specific stem cells and replaced them with stem cells derived from fertilized ova stored in the MizMedi Hospital . . . or some such argument.

Here is the Korea Times translation of Hwang's words:

"I believe that one of my collaborators, who had access to both the laboratory at Seoul National University and the Mizmedi hospital, switched the stem cell lines. I would welcome a probe by prosecutors to look into this."
Yesterday, December 23, Hwang was still making this accusation and had even filed a lawsuit.

Despite Hwang's lawsuit, I still find this accusation impossible to take seriously. My December 18th post on Hwang's accusation speculated on the sort of scenario required for Hwang to be telling the truth:

If I let my imagination run wild, then I can imagine an outlandish scenario. Suppose that some collaborator wants more glory, unshared with Hwang. Solution? Destroy Hwang's reputation and use Hwang's "efficient" technique to develop patient-specific stem cells of one's own.

Such a 'plan' would be crazy, certain of failure since as soon as the erstwhile collaborator developed patient-specific stem cells using a special, efficient technique, the scientific community would call for an investigation and the general Korean public would call for the collaborator's head.

Since I found this implausible, I considered a different scenario:

Far more likely is a scenario in which Hwang himself uses MizMedi stem cells to develop stem-cell lines and then claims to have made patient-specific stem cells.

But isn't that plan equally mad, equally certain of failure? No, it isn't.

Suppose that Hwang was certain that he was close to a breakthrough in developing a new, efficient technique for making patient-specific stem cells. Suppose also that he was worried that some other scientific team elsewhere in the world might develop the technique first, a plausible concern given the high stakes, e.g., scientific honors, an assured career, more-than-sufficient research funding, and a possible Nobel Prize.
Such were my thoughts, in which I gave Hwang some credit for thinking himself close enough to success to cheat just enough to succeed.

My anonymous commenter's reaction was as follows:

What happen to the rest of the co-author? No one question them . . why only Dr Hwang is the sole author biting the bullet? Why the dramatic whinging from Roh and crocodile tears from Schatten? There is simply too much politics. People who knew Korean culture know that Politics play a major role apart from Money!!

Don't talk about ethics when the are double standard in America and other parts of the world.

Majority of the people want to know the truth and to find it is simple. Replicate the experiment. What's the problem. Good thing the patent was filed. In case you wonder . . I stand on the side of science.
I replied as follows:

Anonymous, I suppose that your point is that everybody involved in this scientific fraud needs to be questioned and the full truth established.

If so, I agree.

But if I've misunderstood you, please clarify.

As for the "patent," I assume that you mean a patent on Hwang's technique. I wonder if there really is a special technique. I doubt that Hwang ever cloned any stem cells. My wife doubts this, too, and she thinks that many other Koreans doubt it as well.

On this point, however, we'll just have to wait and see where the investigations lead.
I was going to leave my response at that, but I think that I should say more.

First, I'd like a clarification. What, precisely, is meant by this:

People who knew Korean culture know that Politics play a major role apart from Money!!
I suspect that the commenter -- who I'm assuming is a Korean with English as his second language -- has misused "apart from" and has meant "along with," "in addition to," or some similar expression, but I would certainly welcome further explanation here.

Second, on the "[d]on't talk about ethics" remark, I suppose that I could point out that I didn't actually talk about ethics. But that would be beside the point because I do think that I can talk about ethics if I want to. Indeed, everybody ought to be talking about ethics in this case.

If I want to be generous in my reading of this remark about ethics, then I suppose that the commenter might be objecting to my not having criticized Roh or Schatten. It's true that I haven't spent nearly as much time on them as on Hwang, but I have, in fact, criticized them, too.

Third, when the Anonymous commenter says, "Replicate the experiment," then I agree -- let's try that. According to Bo-mi Lim, "South Korean Stem-Cell Researcher Resigns" Associated Press (December 23, 2005), Hwang still claims to have a special technique:

Hwang still maintained that he had produced the technology to create patient-matched stem cells as he claimed in a May article in the journal Science.

"I emphasize that patient-specific stem cells belong to South Korea and you are going to see this," said Hwang, a veterinarian.
If he has the technique, then as my anonymous commenter points out, replication should be easy. "What's the problem[?]," my commenter asks, implying that there shouldn't be any problem.

Right. There shouldn't be any problem. So, why is there a problem? Why did Hwang have to cheat? If Hwang has developed such an effective, efficient technique for deriving pluripotent, patient-specific stem cells by inserting somatic DNA into an ovum whose nucleus has had its genetic materials removed, then why did he need to fake photos? Why didn't he just derive new stem cells using his wonderful method?

I say because he can't. He doesn't have a special technique, and even if he has managed to derive one or two patient-specific stem cells (which remains to be proven), then he has used hundreds of ova to do so.

Nothing special about that.

Hwang can keep his patent.


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