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Groundbreaking Stem-Cell Research to be Retracted

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

One of the year's most striking scientific papers is apparently going to be retracted. In the paper, South Korean scientists showed that it was possible to make embryonic stem cells from individual patients using cloning techniques. Scientists hailed this as an important advance for both understanding and potentially treating disease. Researchers around the world have been lining up to learn the South Korean team's techniques. But in recent weeks, charges have emerged that the data in the paper were faked, and now one of the senior authors says those charges are true. NPR's Joe Palca reports.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Dr. Roh Sung-il is a fertility doctor at the MizMedi Hospital in Seoul. He was one of the authors on the Science paper. He was responsible for providing scientists at Seoul National University with the eggs they needed for their cloning experiments. Today, in an interview with the Korean Broadcasting System, Dr. Roh said he had learned from his co-authors that some data in the paper were fabricated.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Dr. ROH SUNG-IL (MizMedi Hospital): (Foreign language spoken)

PALCA: Dr. Roh said that he and co-authors Dr. Shin Yong Moon, Dr. Hwang Woo-suk and Dr. Gerald Schatten from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center had all agreed to retract the paper. And as the foremost senior authors on the paper, he said he thought that would happen.

The first hint of trouble came last month when Dr. Hwang was forced to admit that there were errors in one of the tables in the paper. The errors seemed minor, and Science, the journal that published the paper, said at the time they did not significantly alter the paper's primary conclusion, that it was possible to make patient-specific embryonic stem cells from cloned embryos. Then earlier this month, Dr. Hwang was forced to concede more errors, this time in some of the photographs of cells that were posted on Science magazine's Web site. Once again, Science magazine's editor said this was not a problem that affected the scientific outcome of the paper.

But instead of subsiding, the controversy just seemed to escalate. A Korean investigative journalist said he had evidence from one of Hwang's junior colleagues that the data in the paper came from just two embryonic stem cell lines, not the 11 the paper reported. And earlier this week, Hwang's American colleague Gerry Schatten said that he had become convinced that some of the data in the paper were fabricated, and he asked that his name be removed from the list of authors. Science magazine has not yet received a formal request for a retraction from the paper's authors.

News of the serious problems with the paper has provoked shock and dismay among stem cell scientists. Leonard Zon is at Harvard Medical School and past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Dr. LEONARD ZON (Harvard Medical School): I think this is a shame for the field in that certainly, this paper was seen as a landmark for being able to make embryonic stem cells that were patient-specific and would allow the field to proceed in an efficient way.

PALCA: Zon says making stem cells for specific individuals holds great promise for therapies.

Mr. ZON: There are a number of laboratories that are attempting to do this using techniques that they've created themselves, as well as ones that Dr. Hwang had shared. And so I think there's still a distinct need in the field to create patient-specific embryonic stem cell lines and to actually continue the type of research that's going on.

PALCA: News that the paper is being retracted is being treated as a national tragedy in Korea. Hwang Woo-suk had become a hero to the Korean people. Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca
Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.