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May 25, 2006

Ex-Pitt researcher indicted in Korean stem cell case

A former Pitt research associate who worked in the lab of Gerald Schatten at Magee Womens Research Institute (MWRI) is among six scientists indicted May 12 by South Korean prosecutors in connection with Korean cloning researcher Hwang Woo-suk’s faked stem cell research.

Kim Sun-jong was a research associate in Schatten’s MWRI lab from September to December 2005, said UPMC spokeswoman Jane Duffield.

Kim previously had worked at Mizmedi Hospital in Korea, and is accused of fabricating research data to support Hwang’s claims of having created the first cloned human embryonic stem cell lines. Kim was charged with attempting to destroy evidence and for obstructing business operations at Seoul National University (SNU), where Hwang had his lab.

Late last year, Kim returned to Korea to answer questions in an SNU investigation of Hwang’s work and when Kim didn’t return to Pittsburgh, his position at Pitt was terminated, Duffield said. “It was apparent he wasn’t coming back,” she said.

Duffield said Kim’s work at MWRI was general laboratory work and that none of it is being investigated or examined in light of the Korean charges.

Published reports of the Korean prosecutors’ conclusions state that Kim, under pressure to derive stem cells from cloned embryos, mixed stem cells from Mizmedi with the research material, unbeknownst to Hwang. Kim and a colleague also are accused of being ordered by Hwang to fabricate data to support Hwang’s research claims.

In January the SNU investigation committee concluded that research published in 2004 and 2005 in the journal Science was based on fabricated data. The 2004 article reported the establishment of the first human embryonic stem cell line from a cloned blastocyst. The 2005 article claimed that 11 human embryonic stem cell lines had been established through somatic cell nuclear transfer. The two articles later were retracted from the journal and Hwang was removed from his post at SNU earlier this year.

Schatten, director of the Pittsburgh Development Center at MWRI, was a senior author of the 2005 work. He broke with Hwang’s team in November 2005 as questions about the accuracy of the work began to arise.

A Pitt investigation found Schatten committed research misbehavior for his role in the publications. The internal investigators concluded that Schatten composed the text, but did not generate the underlying data. They found that he shirked his responsibilities to ensure the veracity of the data reported and to secure approval of the manuscript by all the co-authors in his role as a co-corresponding author and senior author of the 2005 paper.

Schatten remains a tenured professor and active researcher. Any sanctions imposed as a result of the investigation have not been made public.

Pitt researchers Kim, Park Jong Hyuk and Park Eul Soon were listed as co-authors of the retracted 2004 article. Kim and Park Jong Hyuk also were co-authors of the retracted 2005 article.

Hwang was indicted by Korean prosecutors on charges of fraud, embezzlement and ethics violations. Three other Korean university professors were indicted on fraud charges related to the bogus research. And an obstetrician who provided ova was charged with violations of bioethics law.

Hwang’s fraud charges stem from his acceptance of private and government research funds and donations given based on the falsified research that claimed the development of cloned human embryonic stem cell lines.

Published reports of the charges state that Hwang allegedly accepted more than $2 million in private donations and embezzled more than $850 million in government and private research money. In addition, Hwang is charged with violating South Korea’s bioethics law by paying for human eggs used in the research.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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