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Can Britain Succeed Where Hwang Failed?
By Adam Dean
Staff Writer
Dolly, the first cloned sheep in the world

As Professor Hwang Woo-suk has resigned from his role as professor at Seoul National University following an inquiry that claimed he faked his stem cell research results — perhaps the only, yet unlikely, winners of this situation could be the British scientific community.

Front page headlines around the world have covered the news of Hwang's resignation and confirmation of research fraud in his pioneering cloning papers as revealed at this week's press conference by the special inquiry set up by Seoul National University.

Hwang apologised and resigned from Seoul National University as well as stripping himself of his professorship at the country's leading educational establishment following the initial findings of an inquiry by an expert committee.

The allegations focused on Hwang and his team include the fabrication of at least nine of his 11 stem cell lines and the manipulation of photographs and DNA tests.

"This is a grave act that damages the foundation of science," the panel said.

This is a sentiment reverberated around the world and notably in Britain as the science community reacts to the latest revelations from South Korea.

"Scientific integrity is everything. The rush to cure disease with stem cells has moved too fast and superstar embryonic scientists are appearing in many countries," said Professor Colin McGuckin, Regenerative Medicine, University of Newcastle.

Professor Malcolm Alison of the Centre for Diabetes and Metabolic Medicine, Institute for Cell and Molecular Science in London reiterated these views, "If found guilty, Dr Hwang is completely washed up, a scientist's credibility relies on his integrity."

Much of the concern amongst the scientific community seems, understandably, to do with the ethics of lying in a community based on trust and integrity, but there is also an underlying message of concern that this negative news and unethical behaviour will be jumped on by the pro-life lobbyists who are still campaigning heavily against the ethics of stem cell research.

Dr Ainsley Newson, a researcher in Medical Ethics at Imperial College London, said: "Research fraud is a very serious matter in any scientific discipline. That it seems to have occurred in this already controversial area of research is doubly unfortunate. But Dr Hwang's alleged conduct does not mean that all embryonic stem cell research is unethical. We must continue to debate the promises and pitfalls of this important area of medicine."

Outside of Korea, Britain is regarded by many to be at the forefront of new developments in stem cell research and embryonic cloning. It was a team from Newcastle who were the first scientists in the West to clone a human embryo for stem cell work and Professor Ian Wilmut of Edinburgh University who famously created Dolly, the first cloned sheep.

There is concern from some corners that the Hwang inquiry news raises questions about the legitimacy and authenticity of scientists in the UK and around the world who have been collaborating with him. Wilmut has recently been working with Hwang's team on motor neurone disease, and that venture may now be in doubt as are the projects of other scientists whose work is linked with Hwang.

However, it is not Hwang alone who has caused controversy in the world of stem cell research. Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core) said that Britain's Newcastle team had been reproached by the journal Nature, which complained that the "premature release of incomplete information, without any form of peer review and without making it clear to journalists that the work had not been refereed, is contrary to good scientific practice."

Despite this, and as a result of the latest news from South Korea, it still appears that the British scientific community may be the only winner in this sorry affair. And it could put Britain ahead of the rest of the world, given the restrictions on cloning research in America, a country controlled by right-wing neo-conservatives and where President George W. Bush recently said: "I worry about a world in which cloning becomes accepted."

The main competitor of Hwang's World Stem Cell Hub is the UK's Stem Cell Bank, a two-year-old government laboratory based near London. However, in stark contrast to the Korean venture whose opening this fall was launched amid much fanfair and international excitement, the British bank chooses to maintain a low profile and as a consequence is rarely in the news.

The British bank has rigorous scientific and ethical guidelines that may give the appearance that it has been moving far too slowly compared to its Korean counterpart, which has been in perpetual fast forward. However, the Hwang affair in Korea seems to have proved the British bank's approach to have been spot on. Dr. Glyn Stacey, the British bank's director, declined to be interviewed about the scandal at the Korean laboratory. "He does not think it's appropriate in the media," a spokesman explained.

In stark contrast, before the accusations of forged results, Hwang had been continuously debating the merits of his work in public news conferences and TV interviews as well as releasing comments defending his work that seem to have made the journal Science uneasy.

"It would have been helpful if the authors spent as much time communicating with us as they have holding dueling press conferences," said Monica Bradford, the magazine's executive editor, referring to the fact that both Hwang and his main Korean rival had gone to the news media.

So it remains to be seen if the British scientists can continue their research without being discredited by the Hwang affair. If that is the case, it appears that they will be leading the field of scientific endeavour. But it should be remembered that it is not just a case of following on from Hwang's techniques. The scientists are more or less starting from scratch.

Alison Murdoch, who led the team at Newcastle's Fertility Centre that cloned the first human embryo in the West, said the search for stem cell therapies to cure conditions such as Parkinson's, diabetes and spinal cord injury had been seriously damaged. "We're back on the starting line. When Hwang's work was published, we assumed it was just a case of the rest of us learning how to do it. Now, we've still got to get to that first stage. Nobody wins in this, everybody loses," she said.



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Mr. Adam Dean serves as staff writer and photo journalist for The Seoul Times. He majored in fine arts valuation at Southampton Institute, UK, and worked as a communications and marketing specialist for a leading consultancy in London before he arrived in Seoul in July 2005. He has also traveled independently overland through Asia and the Middle East.

 

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