Wednesday, January 04, 2006

From Korea with Stem Cells

For the past few weeks I've been following the gradual unravelling of that breakthrough stem cell research published last May by a Korean team led by Woo Suk Hwang. For those who don't follow stem cell research (probably most people), Woo Suk Hwang claimed that he had created 11 stem cell lines from patients suffering from various diseases... the first step in being able to use a patients own stem cells as a cure.

No one has been able to repeat their findings, and now allegations have come forward that photos have been reused, data has been fabricated, and DNA tests to match the cells to their donors are being called into question. Hwang admits that mistakes were made in the lab, but claims that his results are still valid, only that there were procedural problems.... the duplicated photos were the result of accidental submission of the wrong photo set, for example, while fungal contamination has conveniently destroyed several of the cell lines.

I can understand the occasional mistake... valuable cell lines do get contaminated and figures can be mislabeled (the most common mistake I have seen is scientists with little statistical background confusing standard error, standard deviation, and 95% confidence level when labeling graphs), but the picture coming out of Hwang's lab is one of extremely poor and confused procedures... and thats putting it in the best light.

I don't like to out-and-out call someone a fraud... its a very serious charge, and not one to be tossed about lightly. Science is a tough field to cheat in, since everyone is trying to replicate everyone elses results. A charitable interpretation is that equivocal results were interpreted as positive results, and that after prematurely announcing their success Hwang and his team cut corners to 'prove' their claim (since I suspect, they had trouble replicating their own results). It is also possible that Hwang honestly feels he was successful and that subordinates supplied him with the data he wanted to see, either out of a desire to please or as a result of pressure to produce a success. For the sake of all those people suffering from congenital illness or spinal cord damage I want to hope that Hwang was genuinely successful but is the victim of a very slopply lab environment... but I'm not holding out much hope.