The World Stem Cell Hub - set up last year at Seoul National University Hospital in South Korea - is the latest victim of the ongoing Korean stem cell and cloning saga. The hub, which was established to create 'a global network' of stem cell lines created in countries across the world, and to share information, has now been formally shut down.
The World Stem Cell Hub was set up by an international consortium - headed by South Korean stem cell scientist Woo Suk Hwang - on 19 October 2005. At the time, the consortium announced that it had set up an international bank of human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) lines at Seoul National University (SNU), and that it would also have satellite laboratories in England, and San Francisco in the US.
The aim of the hub, according to the South Korean health and welfare ministry, was 'to establish a global network on promoting stem cell research', particularly for incurable diseases such as 'nervous system failures, diabetes, Parkinson's disease, glaucoma and hearing disorders'. In 2004, Hwang's team had announced the creation of the world's first cloned human ES cell-line and, earlier in 2005, reported, in the journal Science, the derivation of a further 11 cell-lines from 31 cloned embryos, using just 185 eggs.
In November last year, the future of the hub began to look doubtful, when allegations were made suggesting that Hwang had used eggs donated by a junior researcher to create his 11 ES cell lines. On 12 November, Gerald Schatten, from Pittsburgh University in the US, ended his 20 month collaboration with Hwang because of the allegations. Following these events, other laboratories that were to form part of the hub also said they would pull out of the consortium. Hwang later quit his public positions - including that as chair of the World Stem Cell Hub - after admitting that some eggs used in the work were provided by junior researchers and paid donors.
Subsequently, an investigation found that the 11 ES cell lines reported in Science had been 'faked'. These revelations lead to the retraction of the publication in January 2006, and questions about other research. Later in January, the panel investigating Hwang's work reported that research showing that Hwang's team had created the world's first ES cell line from a cloned human embryo was also faked - an investigation lead by SNU found that no such cell line exists. The finding completed Hwang's downfall - he was suspended from his SNU post in February and then formally dismissed in March. However, he recently said he was going to appeal his dismissal.
In March, SNU transformed the World Stem Cell Hub into a research centre focusing on research into adult stem cells and other developing medical technologies for clinical use, such as gene therapy, said Lim Jong-Pil, a spokesman for SNU. Professor Heo Dae-seog, head of the new centre, said that any decisions on whether it will resume experiments with ES cells will be taken in the future. However, he said, 'our direct goal is to study a biological mechanism customised for a patient', adding 'to that end, priorities would be put on adult stem cells or insulin-secreting cells'.