Seoul National University (SNU) has suspended the discredited South Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang and six other professors in his team from their teaching and research posts. The scientists have yet to be formally punished by SNU, for faking data and breaching ethical standards in their work on human embryonic stem cell (ES cell). They are also facing criminal charges of fraud and misuse of government funds, following the revelation that almost £1.5 million ($2.6 million) remains unaccounted for. Meanwhile, an investigation carried out by Pittsburgh University into Gerald Schatten, Hwang's former collaborator, has concluded that he played no part in the fraud.
The SNU scientists claimed in 2004 that they had created the world's first ES cell line from a cloned human embryo. But an investigation lead by SNU concluded last month that no such cell line exists. The finding completed Hwang's downfall, after a previous announcement that 11 ES cell lines genetically matched to patients, published last year, were also fabricated. A separate investigation carried out by Korea's National Bioethics Board (KNBB) reported last week that the work was ethically, as well as scientifically unsound - the human eggs used in the experiments were obtained from donors who were not given sufficient information about the possible side effects of the procedure. In addition, some donors worked for Hwang's team, and may have been pressured into providing eggs for the research.
The SNU committee is still considering whether to take further measures, such as dismissing Hwang and his six team members. 'The disciplinary committee is still following procedures to punish them. It is looking into their misconduct in research and their breach of ethical standards', said Byun Chang-ku, dean of academic affairs at the university.
Investigators at the University of Pittsburgh have concluded that Gerald Schatten 'likely did not intentionally falsify or fabricate experimental data', and found no evidence that he was aware of the fraudulent nature of the results produced by his collaborators. However, their report does accuse Schatten of 'research misbehaviour', by seeking personal, professional and financial gains from his collaboration with the South Korean team. It says he 'shirked' his responsibilities as senior author on two papers he published with Hwang's team.
The report also revealed that Schatten 'was not averse' to accepting payments from Hwang, which totalled $40,000 over a 15-month period. And when concerns were first raised over the veracity of the ES cell work, Schatten had been in the process of obtaining $200,000 from the Koreans to fund his laboratory work. The panel concluded that while his actions did not constitute research misconduct as defined by university policies, 'it would be an example of research misbehaviour'. Another US stem cell researcher, John Gearhart, told the Washington Post that Schatten 'took the title of senior author but really didn't know what was going on with the data'.