The spectacular rise and fall of maverick South Korean cloning “hero,” Professor Hwang Woo-Suk, a veterinarian and professor of biotechnology at Seoul National University, is being taken as a lesson in the power of media hype.

Despite the fact that most reputable specialists in cloning had believed such a breakthrough was decades away, Hwang stunned the scientific world by claiming to have created 30 cloned human embryos and kept them alive long enough to have grown and collected their stem cells. The media and the international scientific community – and the Korean government – showered Hwang with praise, honours and public funding.

Hwang’s cloning work was published in a paper in the prestigious journal Science and according to the BBC, was subjected to the rigorous scrutiny of independent scientists.

Following this, in May 2005, Hwang burst into the public spotlight again with another paper, also published in Science, in which he claimed to be the first to have created a set of 11 cloned embryonic stem cell lines that were genetically matched to the patient donors.

In the world of stem cell research, patient-specific cloned embryonic stem cells are the cloners’ holy grail. It has long been thought – and amplified by media – that if an embryo could be created from a patient’s own DNA, the stem cells from that cloned embryo could be used without danger of immune system tissue rejection. Hwang’s second paper made him an international cloning superstar and a national hero.

After the 2004 announcement, Hwang began giving media interviews, in which he showed his less-than-complete grasp of the ethical issues surrounding his work. Hwang told an interviewer, “I would really like to help treat these kinds of diseases or illnesses, not for the purpose of human cloning. Actually I am against human cloning, myself.”

In May 2005, Hwang chastized U.S. president Bush for restricting public funding. “With all the great scientists and the great potential of the United States … if, because of some policy hurdle, the researchers cannot realize their dreams, I believe, as a fellow scientist, this would be very regrettable,” Hwang said.

In November 2005, the bottom of Hwang’s world began to fall out when Gerald Schatten, a University of Pittsburgh researcher who had worked with Hwang for two years, announced that he had ceased his collaboration with Hwang. Schatten asked Science to remove his name from the paper, citing unethical practices in collecting donated ova.

In December, Dr. Schatten said that “new problematic information now casts substantial doubts about the paper’s accuracy.” He wrote in a letter to Science, “I received allegations from someone involved with the experiments that certain elements of the report may be fabricated.” While Hwang continued to claim innocence, he nevertheless resigned his official posts and apologized for any improper practices.

Schatten’s December announcement was followed by a television interview in which Roh Sung Il, one of 25 co-authors of the Science paper, said that the evidence in the paper had been faked. Hwang continued to defend his work, saying that the patient-specific stem cell lines were genuine. “It is certain (our team) produced tailor-made stem cells,” he said at a news conference.

After this press conference, in which Hwang’s explanations raised more suspicions, the Seoul National University announced it was launching a complete investigation into Hwang’s claims.

On Jan. 10, the university announced its findings that nearly all of Dr. Hwang’s cloning claims were false. Nine out of the 11 stem cells were faked, while the remaining two are still currently under investigation. The investigation revealed that the 2004 paper was also largely fabricated, with only a few of the embryos being confirmed as clones, and these in very poor condition. Only his cloned Afghan Hound, Snuppy, turned out to be the real thing.

“Woo-Suk’s research team admitted that there were no embryonic stem cells which it claimed it created,” said SNU senior staff Lee Wang-jae.

The SNU report said, “Based on these findings, data in the 2005 Science journal cannot be regarded as a simple accidental error, but as intentional fabrication made out of two stem cells. This is a serious wrongdoing that has damaged the foundation of science.”

On Jan. 11, Science retracted both of Hwang’s papers on unconditinal terms. Public prosecutors in South Korea have indicated that they would be seeking charges of fraud if it could be shown that Hwang had obtained public funding under false pretenses.

On Jan. 12, Hwang held a press conference to apologize, but still would not admit to cheating. He claimed members of his team had deceived him with false data and alleged a conspiracy. Hwang said that cloning human stem cells is possible and asked for six more months to prove it.

Media complicit in Hwang cloning scandal

The spectacular case of Dr. Hwang Woo-Suk’s cloning fabrication is being taken as an abject lesson in the perils of media hype and the cloudy ethics that currently surround embryo issues. For years, pro-life advocates have been trying to bring to the world’s attention the dangers and ethical inconsistencies of embryonic stem cell research and cloning.

The media, however, have long since made up their minds about embryos, a decision that was clinched 40 years ago when hormonal abortifacient contraceptives and legalized surgical abortion forced them to pick a side. A set of long-established journalistic dogmas have become the generally accepted wisdom, even in the scientific community, and applied to stem cells and cloning. To wit: a woman is not pregnant until the embryo has implanted in the uterine wall; and, the embryo does not become a person until we say it does, that is, until that point in pregnancy in which it no longer poses any danger to Roe v. Wade.

Hwang’s fame was a product of the determination of this establishment to prove its point, that embryos have no intrinsic moral status, and that anyway, their worth could not possibly outweigh the potential good of curing debilitating diseases. When Hwang announced that he had found the cloner’s Holy Grail, proof that we could create patient-specific embryonic stem cells that could be used to cure any sort of injury or disease, the media were jubilant, as only a vindicated ideologue could have been.

The Korean scandal has awakened some to the naked bias of scientific journals seeking to justify their having taken a side in what is, essentially, an offshoot of the abortion debate. It has also caused ripples of worry in the cloning lobby that some of the flaws in their argument have been exposed.

“It is common knowledge that the bar for publication in this field often has appeared remarkably low, with even well-respected research journals seeming to fall over one another for the privilege of publishing the next hot paper,” commented David Shaywitz of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, one of the most aggressive universities pressuring for public funding for embryo and cloning research.

Governments, eager to put themselves on the cloning map, are also being revealed as complicit. In South Korea, a government that three years ago had been considering passing legislation banning research cloning as a violation of human rights, heaped praise, funding and honoured research positions on Hwang for his “discoveries.” The briskness with which possible scruples about the nature of the work were forgotten has embarrassed them.

Leon Kass, one of the most respected voices in bioethics, told the Wall Street Journal that the case of Hwang has been illustrative of the larger problem.

“American scientists and the American media have been complicit in the fraud, because of their zeal in the politics of stem-cell and cloning research and their hostility to the Bush funding policy,” said Kass. As the head of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Kass, a physician and professor of ethics, was one of the principal authors of Bush’s 2001 prohibition on public funding for embryo research.

Kass said, “Concerted efforts have been made these past five years to hype therapeutic cloning, including irresponsible promises of cures around the corner and ‘personalized repair kits’ for every degenerative disease. The need to support these wild claims and the desire to embarrass cloning opponents led to the accelerated publication of Dr. Hwang’s ‘findings’ … We even made him Exhibit A for the false claim that our moral scruples are causing American science to fall behind.”

Even with the rush to re-examine the ethics, at this late stage, it is difficult to imagine that an entire international scientific establishment and its uncountable hundreds of billions of dollars – in effect, an entire culture – could change its course. The scientific community clings to the political assertion that embryos are nothing more than little clumps of potentially very lucrative cells. To reverse this now would require that culture to admit that it has been complicit in a mass genocide of apocalyptic proportions.

The Hwang case has shown that the dedication of media, politics and scientific community to this doctrine represents not only a danger to the clones, but, as the Seoul National University said in its press conference, to the “foundation of science” itself.