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November 23, 2005

Prof severs ties with S. Korea researchers

School of Medicine professor Gerald Schatten cited a breach of trust about possible egg-donor recruitment irregularities as the reason for severing his 20-month collaboration with a South Korean research team led by veterinarian Woo-Suk Hwang.

Schatten, who also directs the Pittsburgh Development Center, stated in a prepared release, “I regret to announce that I have suspended my collaborations with Prof. Woo-Suk Hwang, including my involvement with the World Stem Cell Hub project. My decision is grounded solely on concerns regarding oocyte donations in Dr. Hwang’s research reported in 2004,” (Hwang et al, Science 303, 1669-1674).

“I continue to believe the scientific accomplishments of Prof. Hwang and his team at Seoul National University, including those in which I had been involved (Hwang et al, 05 Science 308, 1777-1783; Lee et al., 05 Nature 436, 7051), are landmark discoveries accelerating biomedical research.”

Hwang, an expert in theriogeneology — the science and practice of animal reproduction — earned recognition for cloning a cow and a pig before deriving stem cells from cloned human embryos. In August, his team announced the first cloned dog.

His team received acclaim starting in 2004 for the world’s first line of human embryonic stem cells derived after nuclear transfer (NT-hESCs). Scientists believe that NT-hESCs hold promise for learning the root causes of diseases, for making better and safer medicines and potentially for treating devastating illnesses and disorders.

The original research published in Science was followed by a 2005 publication in Science on which Schatten was the senior author.

Although Schatten was not involved with donor recruitment and did not participate in any experiments, he reviewed the data sent to him, helped prepare the manuscript and was a scientific adviser.

In that study, 11 new NT-hESC lines were derived from patients with spinal cord injury, juvenile diabetes and genetic immunodeficiency. Hwang’s group in Seoul remains the only place in the world where these NT-hESC lines have been made.

Questions have been raised on the source of the oocytes although researchers initially said their single cell line was the result of attempts with oocytes donated by 16 women. Later, Nature reported allegations that two junior lab members had donated oocytes for the research, which raised the ethical question of whether junior team members may feel pressured or seek to benefit by donating.

A Nov. 18 Science article reports that Hwang’s collaborator, fertility specialist Sung-Il Roh of MizMedi Hospital in Seoul, was being investigated for possible illegal payments for oocytes that were fertilized and implanted in infertile women in violation of South Korean bioethics laws.

Schatten issued the following statement citing his reasons for his decision to sever ties with the team: “I believe in maintaining the highest ethical and scientific standards in research conduct and believe that all regulatory requirements not only must be met, but also exceeded. This is true for all medical research, especially so with the still nascent field of hESC investigation.”

In a story published in Science, Korean officials refuted the allegations of oocyte donation irregularities reported earlier in Nature Schatten said.

“Regrettably, [on Nov. 13] information came to my attention suggesting that misrepresentations might have occurred relating to those oocyte donations. The nature of this information mandates confidentiality. I have contacted appropriate academic and regulatory agencies regarding this new information and accordingly, have suspended my collaborations with Prof. Hwang.

“Compliance concerns with ethical practices for obtaining donated oocytes in their 2004 report, and the resultant breach of trust, are the issues that force me to make this decision,” he stated.

In a separate matter, Schatten stated that he also recently learned that there was an error in Table II of the Hwang et al., Science paper. Science has been notified of the correction, and the journal is processing this tabular correction through its normal procedures.

Schatten says he has no reason to believe that this was anything but an honest mistake, but that the error needs to be corrected in the scientific literature. He also said he does not think that it would have had an effect on the study’s conclusions.

Filed under: Feature,Volume 38 Issue 7

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