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12/16/2005 Archived Entry: "Cloning of human an outright fraud?"

I thought the following email exchange between me and gdp might be of general interest. I was drawn this morning to a news story in the (UK) Independent which was entitled "South Korean human cloning pioneer 'admits to fake evidence'"

Gdp answered my queries to him as follows: There are a number of passages in this article that I find troublesome, and I'm not entirely clear on what being alleged in some paragraphs. First, the following: Professor Hwang has already admitted to the unethical practice of using eggs from his own female co-workers as a source of the stem cells, despite repeated denials when he had been challenged about it in the past.

There are two reasons why the above might be an "ethics violation;" abuse of power, or outright fraud:

1.) There is a question of "Abuse Of Power Relationship" if Hwang coerced or pressured his female co-workers into donating eggs. (One of the problems with current cloning technology is that it still requires egg donors, who suffer some risk from the donation process; one can't just take a cell, flip its "switches," and transform it into the equivalent of an egg cell.) In the West, it would have been considered more ethical to seek out outside donors to either volunteer thier eggs or be paid a nominal fee for them; however, this would be considered a relatively minor faux paux by most scientists --- except perhaps by the most Radical Feminists who find _all_ reproductive technologies to be "damaging to women"...

2.) Far more serious, the above passage could be alleging that Hwang took eggs from his co-workers, fertilized them (using his own sperm), extracted stem-cells from the blastula, and then _falsely claimed that they were derived clones_. If this latter possibility is indeed the case, then Hwang would be guilty of out and out fraud --- a total fabrication of his data, comparable to that of the scientist who dabbed black shoe-polish on the backs of white mice and then claimed to have "solved" the tissue-transplant rejection problem...

Based on later passages, it seems that possibility (2.) is more likely (albeit even possibility (1.) would still be troublesome...). The following passage also increases my suspicions of Hwang: Dr Roh said he heard from the professor yesterday morning that there were also no embryonic stem cells remaining from the experiments because all colonies have since died in the laboratory.

Although the above is certainly _possible_, the fact that properly cared-for stem-cell lines have survived for _years_ suggests the possibility that Hwang may have destroyed the evidence of his fraud --- especially since Hwang claimed to have produced _11 lines of stem cells_(what, every colony from _all 11 lines_ died ?!?), and that there are calls for an independent genetic analysis of all 11 cell-lines to prove that they really _are_ cloned from their donors...

The following passage also disturbs me somewhat: Dr Roh, who was one of the co-authors of the study published last June in Science, said that Professor Hwang had agreed to ask the journal to withdraw the paper because of doubts over the authenticity of the data.

If Dr. Roh was a co-author, then how could he _NOT_ know what was going on in Hwang's Lab? Why didn't _he_ recognize that the data were fraudulent? Also, why is there an earlier reference to Roh having "visited" Hwang? Don't they work together? It almost sounds like Roh was uninvolved in the actual research; perhaps he was Hwang's superior, and was added to the author list as a "courtesy" (but then the article should have mentioned this, IMO) or perhaps Hwang and Roh were "logrolling" each other (adding each other's names to their papers to "pad out" their Publication Lists -- a questionable but common practice); but either way, it reflects badly on Roh... (An even more disturbing possibility is that Roh was _involved_ in the fraud, and is attempting to toss Hwang to the wolves in the hope that he himself won't be blamed --- which would be stupid, since if he was involved, I would think Hwang would be likely to "rat" on him...)

The following passage is the one that inclines me to suspect out and out fraud on Hwang's part: According to New Scientist magazine, several cloning scientists have now demanded that independent tests should be carried out to confirm whether or not the 11 stem cell lines genetically match the patients from whom they are supposed to have been derived.

This passage clearly implies that Hwang's peers think he may have faked his data, and that his "11 cell lines" were _NOT_ from "clones," but rather "ordinary" stem-cell lines derived from regular fertilized embryos. (If Hwang's cell-lines had not all suspicously "died," it would have beenpossible to definitively prove whether or not they were cloned, because in a clone, the nuclei would match the cell-donors, while the mitochondria would match the egg-donors.)

One thing that is clear is that Hwang certainly _did_ fake his supporting evidence:...the scientist has admitted errors, such as duplicating some photographs. According to New Scientist, in one case one of the two duplicated photographs is enlarged relative to the other. In a second, one of two duplicated pictures is distorted by being enlarged to different extents along its horizontal and vertical axes.

As Robert Lanza was quoted as saying, "This is a level of error beyond sending the wrong file:" Hwang has clearly manipulated images to make one photo appear to be several independent photos, suggesting a level of both laziness and arrogant stupidity on Hwang's part that I find quite appalling. (was he really so arrogant as to think that the hundreds of scientists reading his paper would be so un-observant that _NONE_ of them would even _notice_ that he re-used the same photo several times with various distortions ??? Just how hard _is_ it to take more than one photo ?!? 8-()

All in all, this article re-inforces my general opinion that persons who commit fraud (and particularly scientific fraud) are either rather stupid, clumsy, and arrogant without realizing it. Even when thay are _extremely_ desperate to report a short-term "success" for some reason that they think they can make good later, they are still likely to get caught at it when others not inconsistencies in their data or can't replicate the result. (An example of the latter was the "shoe-polish" guy I mentioned earlier: He was in danger of losing his funding, but was _so_ convinced that he was "on the right track" that he thought if he just had a few more months, he could make his technique work; he was wrong, and got caught...)

As I said, I'll do some digging, and see if I can find some references; it's possible that _Nature's_ editors have commented on this affair, but I doubt that _Science's_ editors have yet, since their investigation of the possible fraud is "still ongoing"...

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