The stem cell debacle of 2005 wouldn't be the first time that the scientific community, enraptured by the illusion of a genuine breakthrough, made a too-quick rush to praise and a tardy effort to judge. In early 1996, chemists from the University of Utah claimed they had successfully generated a "cold fusion" nuclear reaction. Put sim ply, cold fusion is nuclear fusion occurring well below the several-million-degree temperature typically required for thermonuclear reactions.
Such a discovery would have changed the world by providing limitless, cheap, low-pollution energy. But the claims turned out to be false. A combination of ambition, fear of competition, and academic pressure had led the researchers to announce the discovery before proof had been made of the discovery. Although personally devastating to the career of the scientists in question, the fate of the cold fusion field was worse. The association with the term to this day is one akin to a nuclear physicist seriously discussing power sources for UFOs or the location of Atlantis.
At this point, Hwang's scandal hasn't seriously tarnished the credibility of the stem cell research field in general. In fact, it should be noted that several of Dr. Hwang's contributions were genuine, and truly groundbreaking. The technique of gently squeezing the nucleus out of a donor egg rather than sucking it out is one. The idea of inserting the entire adult donor cell, not just its nucleus, into the hollowed-out recipient egg is another. And, of course, the existence of Snuppy the cloned dog does appear to be legitimate—no matter how many failed attempts were required to achieve a single success.
Hwang is not getting "off the hook" for his over-zealous take on his research. Chung Un-Chan, the dean of Seoul National University, has stripped Hwang of his "chair professor" post and is moving to punish him and six other professors over the faked reports. A disciplinary committee is expected to issue a final punishment within few months.
Hwang may have been ambitious, and in love with the limelight that so rarely shines on researchers who are justly deserving of moving society ahead into the future. However, it seems unlikely that he set out to intentionally perpetrate a fraud on the public. What seems more likely to me is that someone—whether Hwang, a member of the lab staff, or the entire team together—believed strongly enough in the work to be willing to cut a single corner. Then two. And then—it was only a matter of time.
On a cloudy Friday afternoon in February 2006, Dr. Hwang left his position as a university professor. He made a short public announcement as he did so. "I sincerely apologize to the people for creating a shock and disappointment," Hwang told reporters, "With an apologetic heart . . . I step down as professor of Seoul National University." His regret was earnest and seemed, at its core, to be absolutely truthful.
If only his research had been as well.
STEM CELL CURES AND CURSES
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