Last year, 265 allegations came in to the Office of Research Integrity. And while only a small fraction led to findings of actual misconduct, those mostly unheralded cases are remarkable for their similarity to the much more visible South Korean stem cell scandal, a review of federal records reveals. [IPBiz note: the ORI is a body which reviews evidence of fraud from investigations done by a federal grantee (e.g., a university)]
Several scientists and ethicists said it is becoming clear that, if anything, Hwang Woo Suk was a rather typical faker. What made the case big was not the scope or creativeness of his lies but the extremely high profile of the scientific field in which he chose to perpetrate his charade.
In the end, several noted, most research misconduct that comes to light, including Hwang's, does so for the most old-fashioned of reasons: Colleagues or former co-workers turn in the cheaters.
"Did we, for example, change our research plans or stop doing things because we thought Hwang was successful? The answer is no," said Douglas A. Melton, part of a Harvard team that is awaiting approval to begin embryo cloning experiments like those Hwang had supposedly done. "What happened in Korea hasn't sped up or slowed down our progress." [IPBiz note: this is not what the Newcastle stem cell researchers said, and it is CERTAINLY NOT what solid state researchers said in light of the Schon fraud.]
Many and perhaps most instances occur under the radar, Pascal and others acknowledge. Among them may be some of the many cases that are reported but go uninvestigated because they fall outside ORI's jurisdiction, which is limited to science supported by public health service funds. (Other offices, including one at the National Science Foundation, cover other realms of federal science but handle far fewer cases than ORI.) Periodic changes in the federal definition of research misconduct -- the current definition encompasses "fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism" -- have also made it difficult to detect trends or determine whether scientists are any more or less dishonest than, say, corporate executives or politicians.
"You do not need to do something highly sophisticated," said University of Maryland professor Adil E. Shamoo, editor in chief of the journal Accountability in Research. "Don't write something in a lab notebook. Take a cell culture and call it something else. Take the eggs you say you didn't take. If stem cells was not such a high-profile area, this would have gone undetected for years."
Hwang's crimes were similarly ordinary, say the Korean investigators who looked into his case.
Using DNA fingerprinting techniques, they discovered that the 11 stem cell colonies, or lines, that Hwang said he had derived from 11 patients were really just two lines, divided into multiple batches. Digital photographs of the two were manipulated to make it seem as though there were 11.
Additional tests showed that the cells came not from cloned embryos but from conventional embryos, made by standard fertilization of eggs by sperm.
To test the veracity of Hwang's earlier claim that he was the first to grow stem cells from a cloned human embryo, investigators took 23 samples of cells he said came from an embryo cloned from a woman.
The DNA patterns of all 23 should have matched the woman's. Instead, 12 had one DNA pattern, 11 had a different pattern, and neither matched the woman's.
Tests showed that the 11 had been derived from a conventional embryo taken from a nearby fertility clinic. DNA patterns of the other 12 indicated they came from another woman who had donated eggs. But no clone had been created. Instead, in an uncommon biological quirk, one of the woman's eggs had spontaneously produced daughter cells through a process known as parthenogenesis.
To complete the fraud, Hwang's team falsified DNA tracings to suggest that the stem cell DNA patterns were identical to those of the donor's. They simply submitted two identical DNA tracings from the donor, altered one just enough to make it look like a fresh tracing, and said one was hers and one was from the stem cells.
The episode has been a huge embarrassment, agree scientists, journal editors and others. But anyone who thinks it has stymied the controversy-hardened field of stem cell research need look no further than the pages of a recent issue of a free newspaper in Washington to know that is not true. "Which comes first . . . the egg or the cure?" asked an ad seeking women to donate eggs for stem cell research.
It was placed by Advanced Cell Technology of Worcester, Mass., a company that for years has been working to make stem cells from cloned human embryos. Melton's team at Harvard and at least one other in California are also close to entering the race.
Success is uncertain, but one thing is sure: Editors who screen eventual submissions will look for every trick in the book. They will publish the best of them -- and then, knowing the limits of their trade, they will hold their breath.