A South Korean research scandal that recently shook the scientific world may be closer to home than originally thought.
Dr. Gerald Schatten, a researcher from the University of Pittsburgh, has been implicated by a Seoul National University panel investigating the work of Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk. In South Korea, Suk went from being the country’s most celebrated scientist to highly discredited when it was determined last month that his research on human stem cell cloning was illegitimate. Hwang has since resigned and may face jail time for misusing government funds.
That study was co-authored by Schatten. The extent of Schatten’s involvement in the fraud is being investigated by his university.
Schatten remains on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh as an academic panel reviews the extent of his involvement in Hwang’s work. The panel is expected to continue its investigation into February.
The SNU panel indicated that Schatten’s role in the study and its fabrications may have been significant, but this has yet to be confirmed by the American panel investigating that question. Schatten has declined to talk with any news media until the investigation is complete.
Hwang grabbed headlines worldwide in April 2005 for leading the successful effort to create the world’s first cloned dog, an Afghan hound named “Snuppy.”
While the SNU panel investigating Hwang’s work found that Snuppy is indeed an authentic clone, the rest of Hwang’s work in cloning research was left in tatters – along with Hwang’s reputation – when the panel revealed that his claim of having created 11 patient-specific stem cell lines in a May 2005 article in the journal Science was a fraudulent one. A year earlier, in the same journal, Hwang claimed to have created the world’s first cloned human embryos. This was also revealed to be false.
The panel’s report states that Hwang intentionally fabricated data in an act of “misconduct that undermines the fundamentals of science.”
In the past, Hwang had worked on several scientific studies with another South Korean researcher named Kwang Yul Cha, including at least two projects in 2001. During this same time, Cha was working with other American researchers on a study later published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine claiming that Christian prayer was proven to be effective in helping infertile women to become pregnant. The paper’s legitimacy has been widely questioned, and some doubt that the experiments described in it were ever performed at all.
Daniel Wirth, one of the pregnancy study’s co-authors, was sentenced to five years in federal prison for embezzling millions of dollars from the Adelphia Corporation and the United States Government.
Cha’s professional involvement with both Wirth and Hwang has raised the curiosity of Dr. Bruce Flamm, a professor at University of California, Irvine. Flamm, like many in the medical world, strongly believes that the Cha-Wirth pregnancy study was fraudulent.
“This broke all known laws of nature and physics, and if it was true, it would have been one of the greatest discoveries in history,” Flamm, who was one of several scientists independently investigating the Cha study since its publication in 2001, said.
When Wirth was arrested by the FBI a year later, Flamm saw a red flag.
“Not only did the methodology of the paper seem bizarre, but now one of the authors was arrested and indicted for multiple felonies,” Flamm said. “We knew something was wrong.”
Flamm said that even after Wirth, who is originally from Pennsylvania, was incarcerated, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine did not retract the pregnancy paper. Nor were the two Columbia University researchers who co-authored the paper disciplined or seriously investigated, in contrast to the Hwang case.
John Paul Titlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.