Sunday, December 25, 2005

Hwang problem simply a photo mixup: flashback to New York Times, Dec. 7

An example of a Times story that didn't quite pan out:

An error in a prominent article about an advance in stem cell research arose because the authors supplied the wrong set of replacement photos and not because of anything that would undermine the article's conclusions, the editors of Science, the journal that published the article, said yesterday [Dec. 6].

In the article, Dr. Hwang Woo Suk, a researcher at Seoul National University in South Korea, reported that he had established embryonic stem cell lines from 11 patients, the first step toward the long-heralded goal of repairing patients with their own tissues. But questions arose about the research after his American co-author, Dr. Gerald P. Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, publicly severed relations last month over the issue of whether the human eggs used in the experiment had been paid for.

A new problem arose on Monday [Dec. 5], when Dr. Hwang informed Science that several of the 11 photos in his published report of June 17 were duplicates, even though each was meant to show a different human cell colony. If supporting photographic evidence were lacking, it could have raised doubts as to whether the researchers had really established 11 cell lines. [Note: Hwang was responding to an internet post which raised the issue he identified to Science. There were other issues raised in the internet which Huang did not identify to Science and which Science did not independently evaluate.]

But after a review of the journal's files, the editors say they have concluded that the original manuscript contained 11 different photos and that the set with the erroneous duplicates was sent by the authors after Science had requested higher-resolution photos.
[Note: on Friday, Dec. 16, 2005, Hwang admitted that at the time of manuscript submission (March 15, 2005) he possessed only eight cell lines. In a nationally televised news conference, the Seoul National University scientist admitted there were only eight stem cell lines when he submitted the paper for review, but that his team later created three more. He added that tests on his stem cell lines will prove his team "has the source technology to produce them." Thus, the editors of Science have some explaining to do about the significance of the "11 different photos."]

All the photos were prepared in Seoul and sent to Dr. Schatten in Pittsburgh, who forwarded them to Science. It is not yet clear if the mix-up occurred in Seoul or in Pittsburgh. where Dr. Schatten copied the photos, said Jane Duffield, a spokeswoman at Pittsburgh. Though all the research was done in Seoul, Dr. Schatten's role was to correct the English and serve as a consultant, she said.

Dr. Donald Kennedy, the editor of Science, said in yesterday's statement that he had no reason to believe that the erroneous photos cast doubt on the article's scientific findings. [by this time, both internet posts had occurred and "PD Notebook" had interviewed a number of researchers, including Koreans then working for Dr. Schatten.]

[by Nicholas Wade, Dec. 7, 2005]

Note that even the abstract of the Hwang paper clearly states: "Eleven hESC lines were established by somatic cell nuclear transfer (SNT) of skin cells from patients with disease or injury into donated oocytes."


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