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Journal Ready to Retract Controversial Stem Cell Paper

Ethics lapses surround study that suggested possible treatments for disease

FRIDAY, Dec. 16, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- One of the world's leading science journals is ready to retract a major study on stem cell research, first hailed as a breakthrough but now shrouded in controversy, if the many authors of the paper do not agree to retract it themselves.

The Friday announcement from the editors of Science followed a worldwide flurry of fraud and ethics charges involving work by South Korean scientist Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk and 24 others. The research, first published online by the journal in May, showed how 11 stem cell lines were created through cloning that did not involve fertilized embryos.

But last month, Hwang's senior co-author Dr. Gerald Schatten, vice chairman of research development in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences of the University of Pittsburgh, severed ties with Hwang over a question about how the eggs for the cloning were obtained. And this week, he asked the journal to remove his name from the study because he doubted its accuracy.

Then on Thursday, a second study co-author went to the media, and charged most of the 11 stem cell lines were faked.

On Friday, Hwang himself said the article should be withdrawn from the journal because of errors, but he maintained the findings were sound and he would soon prove that.

"This has been a long and confusing, and eventually disappointing, few weeks," Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science said at a Friday afternoon news conference. "It is clear that the authors are going to need to provide more details as to where the errors lie and how they arose."

Kennedy added that the journal does not retract a paper unless all authors have agreed to the retraction. Hwang and Schatten have already asked the journal to retract the article.

"Dr. Hwang has assured us that he is energetically engaged in getting in touch with the other authors for the purpose of getting that agreement," he said.

If the authors cannot agree on a retraction, Kennedy added, the journal could editorially retract the paper, essentially "advising the scientific community to ignore it."

Hwang, a professor at Seoul National University in South Korea, has been hailed as a pioneer for his work in stem cell reproduction.

The original paper detailed how Hwang's research team had used DNA from people suffering from injury or disease to create 11 embryonic stem cell lines that could then be used to quickly and efficiently study human frailties in the laboratory.

Last month, Hwang made a statement acknowledging that the paper contained fabricated evidence.

But on Friday, Hwang stood by the larger conclusions of the paper even while acknowledging mistakes.

"I apologize for creating this uproar both in and out of Korea," Hwang told reporters in Seoul Friday, according to Bloomberg News. "The fact remains that our research team was successful in creating stem cells from patients' skin cells. Still, there were mistakes made, human errors, in taking photographs and in the preservation of the stem cells."

But Roh Sung II, one of the senior study co-authors and chairman of the board at MizMedi Hospital in Seoul, told MBC television Thursday that nine of the 11 embryonic stem cell lines Hwang claimed to have created were fake and the authenticity of the two remaining cell lines was unknown, according to the Associated Press.

Schatten severed a 20-month collaboration with Hwang in November, saying human eggs used in their research may have been paid for or obtained from lab workers, both violations of ethics codes.

The entire episode has raised numerous questions not only about ethics in the world of high-stakes research, but about the scientific publication process.

During the Science press conference, Kennedy defended the journal's review process.

"I can't think of a single systemic addition that we would make in the case of papers that seem particularly significant or particularly novel in terms of overturning conventional wisdom," Kennedy said. "There is no way that the peer-review system can be made foolproof against misrepresentation of data. It's a very difficult task for peer reviewers, and they're not going to catch everything."

This particular paper involved more review readers than in the past, although it went from submission to publication in slightly less than the average 120 days, said Katrina Kelner, deputy editor of the journal.

"There is some disappointment that falls on the authors because we now know that some of these problems were known to them at the time that the 2005 manuscript was submitted," Kennedy said. "Investigations are under way at Seoul National University and at the University of Pittsburgh. We can't come to any conclusions with respect to the research misconduct issue. It's premature to do that."

Science will, however, be taking a harder look at a paper published by the same research group in 2004.

Schatten won't be available for comment until the University of Pittsburgh Office of Research Integrity concludes its investigation of "the circumstances of Schatten's role" in the controversy, a university spokeswoman said Friday.

"There are consequences for Dr. Schatten," Kennedy said. "I think it's a sauce-for-the-goose, sauce-for-the-gander proposition. If you are going to be a full co-author and share in the credit for an accomplishment, then you have to take the fall if it's wrong."

And he noted, any retraction from the authors will have to contain more clarifying information about the nature of the errors.

"I can't say chapter and verse with respect to what we might like to have, but it is more than what we have gotten so far," he said.

More information

To learn more about stem cells and stem cell research, head to the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

SOURCES: Dec. 16, 2005, news conference with Donald Kennedy, Ph.D., editor-in-chief, Science, and Katrina Kelner, Ph.D., deputy editor, Science; Bloomberg News; Associated Press
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