18 December 2005

Dr Hwang's Explanation

Below are excerpts of the Dr Hwang Woo Suk press conference held 2 days ago at Seoul National University (SNU). I got this from the Korea Times. It is time we hear what he had to say about the ongoing stem cell controversy. All caps and bold phrases are mine; I found these worthy of emphasis.

"I Offer an Apology"
I want to make an apology and bring the truth to light. The research on tailor-made stem cells was carried out through the dedicated efforts and collaboration of researchers both at home and abroad.

Plus, it is a breakthrough enabled by the support of the general public in Korea and our scientific colleagues.

I offer an apology for causing many disputes and undermining the significance of our cloning performance, due to mistakes as shown in the fermenting suspicions of duplicated stem cell photos.

What I can say for sure is that we did create patient-specific stem cells and we have source technologies to repeat them from scratch.

After reviewing the lingering questions, we found we made a lot of mistakes and have been somewhat negligent in maintaining stem cells.

How To Make Tailor-Made Cells
First, we should insert somatic cells into enucleated human eggs, the somatic cell cloning process that takes about five days. The SNU team took charge of it.

A stem cell grows from three-to-four cell colonies on average and a total of six researchers including me confirmed it every morning by checking on the work through microscopes and monitors.

When we found an unprecedented case, we sent data to Gerald P. Schatten (professor at the University of Pittsburgh) in the United States to find a proper way to culture cells.

All the processes can be confirmed because we secured the data of microscopic photos and research notes.

Second, we analyzed the characteristics of established stem cells. Through the DNA tests, the HLA match-up (DNA compatibility match-up) was checked by Mizmedi researchers at our request.

Third, based on the collaborative information, the SNU team prepared the paper that was presented to the journal Science after the consultation with Schatten.

Fourth, Mizmedi took charge of enlarging the number of stem cells, which took place five-to-seven days after establishment while the latest cells were managed by the SNU team.

Fifth, we distributed some of tailor-made stem cells to a handful of universities and research centers in Korea and overseas.

What Happened Afterwards
On Jan. 9, this year, six tailor-made stem cell lines were contaminated to an extent that they could not be restored. We instantly reported it to the government to come up with follow-up measures.

We tried to revive the moribund cells without success. But we hoarded two of the six stem cell batches at Mizmedi just in case and received them (after the accident). Then we extracted six more later to report to Science and three more after that.

We were 100 percent confident of out tailor-made stem cells in the face of challenges from MBC (a local TV network that raised doubts on Hwang’s research). So, we provided five stem cells and somatic cells of patients to MBC.

Our staff even took a flight to get a somatic cell because one of the five patients was a foreigner.

Due to worries over the credibility of MBC-initiated tests, we carried out in-house trials that revealed Nov. 18 that their DNA fingerprint traces were different from those printed in Science.

Back then, we could not suspect a possibility that they were from Mizmedi so we checked out any probability that DNA peak value can change due to long-time culturing.

Many specialists participated in the trial but they failed to find any relevant paper. Since we heard of the allegations that our stem cell lines came from Mizmedi, we turned to address that possibility.

After sending data to one of former Mizmedi researchers, we learned the stem cells were actually made in Mizmedi. We double-checked it through a second-round trial.

Our team is thawing five frozen stem cell lines to authenticate our performance. I think their DNA fingerprints will be learned within 10 days.

An Investigation
We staged an in-house probe late last month on how our tailor-made stem cells were replaced with those of Mizmedi.

Presumably, the stem cells were changed in their nascent stage with those of Mizmedi because a total of six related researchers do not have any doubts as to the authenticity of stem cells.

Subsequently, we could not exclude above-mentioned possibility. The fact adds suspicions that genders of somatic cell contributors correspond with those of Mizmedi stem cells.

In addition, most of the stem cell lines were turned to stem cells of which the existence and DNA characteristics were not disclosed.

Based on this reasoning, we suspect SOMEONE who had access both to our lab and Mizmedi is responsible. To confirm this, we will request the police to investigate this case.

As the leader of our research team I sincerely apologize for causing all these controversies both at home and abroad.

But we still need to confirm the veracity of five stem cells and that the 2004 stem cells really exist.

I beg people’s pardon once again for allowing critical flaws in revealing our scientific breakthroughs even though we retain source technologies.

To prevent these source technologies from fading out, I ask people to give us time to repeat our experiments and I will put forth my best efforts.

The Korean Marmot's Hole and Glenn McGee of the Bioethics Blog have excellent and comprehensive coverages of this cloning controversy. I highly recommend you read it.

My opinion is that even if Dr Hwang comes out of this clean, his reputation has already been damaged. No amount of apology can repair that. Still, I feel sorry for him. I also feel bad for Korea's hopes to lead the way in biotechnology. I continue to hope that this gets resolved soon enough. It is sad that even the scientific community is not impervious to trivial matters like gossip, intrigue, and jealousy.

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