South Korean Embryonic Stem Cell Research Fraud Had Some Progress

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 6, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

South Korean Embryonic Stem Cell Research Fraud Had Some Progress Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
August 6,

Seoul, South Korea ( — About 18 months ago, the world discovered that the amazing progress South Korean embryonic stem cell researcher Hwang Woo-suk supposedly made was entirely bogus. However, scientists reviewing his work say that he did have some achievements despite faking much of his research.

Hwang’s team claimed to have been the first to clone a human embryo and to create patient specific embryonic stem cells.

The claims were big news because they could have represented an advance that would have combated one of the key problems of embryonic stem cell research — that a person’s immune system rejects the cells once they’re injected as a therapy.

That’s a problem that doesn’t plague adult stem cells, which pro-life groups support because they don’t involve the destruction of human life to obtain.

Hwang’s papers were eventually retracted and he is now on trial for violating South Korean bioethics laws and allegedly embezzling millions of private and public funds meant for research.

But a new report from scientists at Children’s Hospital Boston and the Harvard Stem Cell Institute finds that Hwang may have made one important discovery.

Publishing their findings in the August 2 edition of the journal Stem Cell, the scientists say Hwang was successful in creating the world’s first human embryonic stem cell to be derived by parthenogenesis.

That’s a process that creates an embryo containing genetic material only from the donor egg — in the same way a handful of plants and animals can self-reproduce.

"We know now that the Koreans’ first supposed nuclear transfer-derived stem cell line was actually derived from the woman’s egg alone," George Q. Daley, MD, PhD said.

An initial investigation of the Korean group’s first embryonic stem cell line suggested it might be parthenogenetic in origin, but the analysis was inconclusive. This is the first time the origin had been examined fully in a peer-reviewed journal.

The scientists tested three human embryonic stem cells isolated from fertilized embryos as well as the Korean line of human cells claimed to have been created through nuclear transfer.

The Korean cell line displays a genetic pattern that is clearly consistent with a parthenogenetic origin, they said. They believe the Hwang team generated parthenogenetic stem cells by accident and didn’t realize what they had created.

Parthenogenesis is a method of reproduction, common in plants and in some animals, in which the female can generate offspring without the contribution of a male.

"There has been an advance in the idea that you can couple parthenogenesis and genetic screening to identify those cell lines that are going to be most helpful," Daley says.

If other scientists can advance the technique they could be able to create embryonic stem cells that overcome the immune system rejection problems. Until then, adult stem cells still hold the most promise for patients.