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[Opinion] Stem Cell Research Must Continue

Posted December. 17, 2005 10:36,   


The controversy over Hwang Woo-suk’s stem cell research has become a “truth or false head-on clash” between Hwang and his former research partner Roh Sung-il, the head of Mizmedi Women’s Hospital.

The statements from both parties have conflicted with each other so much that it is hard to tell which are true and which are false.

Just one day after Roh revealed that “all the tailor-made stem cells were fake,” shocking the public, Hwang announced that “the stem cells were replaced by Mizmedi,” and requested the prosecution to investigate.

Hwang’s research is a huge national project. The government has invested 33 billion won (6.5 billion last year, and 26.5 billion this year) in tax money into the research. If Hwang’s statement that “the tailor-made stem cells were replaced by those from Mizmedi Hospital” is true, this would be a serious crime.

However, Roh immediately responded that “this whole thing is a scenario made up by Hwang, who wants to make Kim Seon-jong a victim of this play.” To get to the bottom of the stem cell case, which now may even involve criminal liabilities, an objective and scientific investigation by Seoul National University—and possibly the police—will be required.

It is a disgrace to Korea’s biotechnology industry that Hwang, who was recognized by the whole world after one impressive research result after another, requested his paper be withdrawn from Science magazine because of the grave fault of forging stem cell pictures.

The mistakes made in the process of writing the paper, and the negligence of the research results have faded the glory of all his scientific results of the past years. It was a big mistake for Hwang not to have admitted his faults from the beginning, when doubts about the stem cells in his paper first came up. That aroused suspicion. He also should not have changed his words or remained silent about the doubts.

In addition, duplicating pictures of stem cells and forging pictures cannot be tolerated in scientific circles where truth is the most important value pursued. The fall of Hwang’s credibility inside and outside the country will inevitably impose a big burden on the future research of his team.

Hwang said yesterday that “there are eight more stem cell lines which can be verified through thawing and cultivating.” At this, Roh, who asserted in a TV interview that “there are no stem cells,” changed his words in just a day, saying, “Two of the stem cells have to be verified first.”

At the press conference, he didn’t try to hide his dislike of Hwang, telling reporters that he “has been used and then abandoned,” and that he is “disillusioned.” He also said, “I requested this news conference to get MBC off the hook. ‘PD Diary’ has saved me,” referring to the MBC news program that first reported the suspicions surrounding Hwang’s research.

The police have to examine the complicated connection between Hwang, Mizmedi chairman Roh, and the unidentified informant to “PD Diary.”

Hwang attended the press conference with four researchers who have confirmed the existence of stem cells, and said that he possess microphotographs and other documents that can authenticate his stem cell findings. The investigation team of SNU has to find out whether the paper was forged, the facts were overstated, or how many stem cells were actually made. Hwang and Roh have to actively cooperate in this investigation.

Kim Seon-jong, a researcher at Mizmedi Hospital who has acted as a bridge between the hospital and the SNU research lab, is emerging as a key witness who can clear the suspicions.

Kim should come back to Korea as soon as possible and clarify the truth about what he has done and seen at the hospital and SNU research lab.

Hwang asserted that he has “created customized stem cells and is in possession of the original technology to further develop the stem cells.” He also said that an important and significant paper is currently being examined by a prestigious journal, and another paper is waiting to be published in a near future. Hwang has to prove the existence of the original stem cell technology not through his words, but through his examined papers and research results.

Stem cell research is not a personal matter between Hwang and Roh. The truth of the past research has to be found out through thorough examination and close investigation, but the pace of the follow-up research on stem cell, which is a big hope for Korean science, has to be accelerated. It is truly a national loss that all stem cell research is being trapped in this “truth or false game.”