Sunday, February 19, 2006

Schatten to cooperate with Korean prosecutors via email

Korea Times, 19 Feb. 06: Schatten recently told Korean prosecutors that he will cooperate in their probe on Hwang through e-mail. Prosecutors who mailed their questions to Schatten last week are expecting a response from the U.S. scientist by the end of this week.

Prosecutors will question a list including former Mizmedi Hospital researcher Kim Sun-jong, who co-wrote the 2005 Science paper, Hanyang University professor Yoon Hyun-soo, also a co-author of the 2005 paper, and Lee Yang-han, an official at the state-run National Institute of Scientific Investigation, who conducted the DNA test for the stem cell samples described in the 2005 paper.

from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette :

Lawyers for University of Pittsburgh researcher Gerald Schatten told South Korean prosecutors on Feb. 17 that he would respond to their e-mailed questions regarding a discredited report on cloned embryonic stem cells, according to Korean press reports.

Dr. Schatten was a co-author with Hwang Woo-suk of Seoul National University of a 2005 article in the journal Science that claimed to have created 11 patient-specific embryonic stem cell lines from cloned embryos. An investigation by the Seoul university last month concluded that all 11 stem cell lines were fakes.

Two weeks ago, press reports indicated South Korean prosecutors had e-mailed a list of questions to Dr. Schatten, director of the Pittsburgh Development Center at Magee-Womens Research Institute. Though he did receive a list of questions, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center spokeswoman Jane Duffield said "they weren't official" and it wasn't clear who sent them.

His attorney has since contacted the prosecutors and assured them that Dr. Schatten will respond to their questions once he has an official copy of the list, she said.

Dr. Schatten has not publicly commented on the matter since he asked Science editors in December to retract the disputed paper.

The decision to respond to questions came a day after prosecutors said a former colleague of Dr. Hwang told them that Dr. Schatten was aware of contamination that had destroyed four of the 11 claimed stem cell lines, yet had pressed to publish the paper nonetheless.

The Yonhap news agency said that the allegation by veterinarian Kang Sung-keun suggests that Dr. Schatten was directly involved in the fraud.

"I heard conversations exchanged between Hwang and Gerald Schatten when they met at an overseas academic meeting right after the stem-cell contamination occurred," Dr. Kang reportedly told prosecutors. He quoted Dr. Schatten as saying, "Let's publish the paper since the stem cell line numbers four to seven have been made," despite the contamination of those cell lines.

The account does not differ markedly from a report last week by a University of Pittsburgh investigatory panel, which concluded that Dr. Schatten was not involved in faking data and had not committed scientific misconduct.

The panel was critical of Dr. Schatten, however, for a number of shortcomings in preparing the report, including the issue of the contaminated stem cell lines.

"We feel that he did not exercise a sufficiently critical perspective as a scientist," the panel said in a summary report. For example, "he reported that he was told by Dr. Hwang in the middle of January 2005 that some contamination of the cells had occurred. Dr. Schatten's reaction was apparently to accept Dr. Hwang's assurance that this problem was a minor nuisance."

There is also an article from Scientic American :

At worst, says Alan Colman of ES Cell International in Singapore, "[the Hwang fraud] may cause a tainting of the whole field" if the public confuses the tiny corner of research spearheaded by the Koreans with mainstream work on embryonic stem cells harvested from preestablished lines. [IPBiz note: if this is the mainstream work, then are not the states, like California, wasting their money?] That work, the only kind funded by the U.S. government, is not as scientifically or ethically precarious because it does not demand new human eggs. ESC research opponent Andrew Fergusson, president of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, corroborates that outcome, predicting that this debacle will "make the average American less likely to support stem cell research" when financial investments, ethical tightrope walking and lack of scientific proof are taken into account. Such a reversal would be disastrous for U.S. researchers, who rely on the public's enthusiasm--translated into private donations and state-sponsored legislation--rather than federal dollars for support.

But at best the scandal has only "set back the clock" on therapeutic cloning, so that "the field is wide open," says Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, Calif., who will continue to pursue research similar to that of the Koreans. Tailored stem cell colonies are considered a crucial way "to study pathology in a petri dish, so you can make all kind of advances that are hard to predict otherwise," explains Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute; he says that the obstacles to succeeding where Hwang failed are principally technical, not biological, and that the money being poured into the work is still money well spent.

Whether funding sources will agree remains to be seen. Moreno points out that "the effect won't be as great as might have been the case a year ago," because four states--California, Connecticut, Illinois and New Jersey--have already made a financial commitment to embryonic stem cell work. (Still, New Jersey recently tabled its 2005 stem cell measure.) As for institutional backing, opines bioethicist Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania, "patient advocacy isn't budging"--certainly a positive note for the embattled science.

Beyond the future of research, the bigger issue may be how the scientific community will address the apparent lack of safeguards against misconduct. Defenders note that Hwang's faulty science would have been caught eventually, when the experiments defied replication by other, independent parties. And in terms of ethical responsibility, they point to the National Academy of Sciences's guidelines, published voluntarily seven months before Hwang's fraud, and to the fact that it was caught by other scientists, as evidence of the community's self-correcting nature. [IPBiz note: The fraud was alleged by Hwang's co-workers, speaking anonymously to third parties. The fraud was NOT caught by Hwang's scientific peers. Note the results with Jan-Hendrik Schon was the same. Insiders blew the whistle. Scientists who complained to journals about problems with Schon's work were ignored!!]

Yet the peer-review process--required to publish papers in scientific journals--is not designed to expose outright wrongdoing, even the staunchest advocates have to admit. They agree that had whistle-blowers not come forward, Hwang's falsified data and unethical means of egg procurement might have gone unnoticed. And this revelation, in turn, has recast the spotlight on missing legislation at home and abroad.

"It's become the Wild West out there, with each state doing what it pleases," says Steven Teitelbaum of Washington University in St. Louis, who has lobbied for changes in the Bush administration policy. "We have nothing that assures the research will be done ethically--laws should be passed on this." Others, including Caplan, believe that international treaties will be necessary to head off concerns over egg sales. One danger is that without oversight, nations may pull away from the international stem cell exchange and cooperative research altogether. "If there are differences in standards, countries could turn isolationist," Colman says.

That slowdown is certain to occur in at least one arena. After seeing how Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh, a senior co-author who purportedly played a minor role in Hwang's experiments, was carried along in the downward spiral, Moreno says, "people will think twice about collaborating." Potential co-authors of the future may painstakingly assess a project before consenting to give their names--and journals may be pressed to monitor more carefully the contributions of all involved. As for scientific relations with South Korea specifically, Snyder reports that "some of our philanthropic support sent a message: essentially, 'Don't work with the Koreans.' They have no problems with the field, but the Koreans are radioactive now."


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