In a May 12 article in the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Demick began her story about the indictment of Hwang Woo-Suk and five associates with the text: South Korean prosecutors announced today that they had charged scientist Hwang Woo-suk with embezzlement and fraud, saying he misused public funds for his fabricated experiments in human cloning.
The article is interesting for what it did say concerning two areas that might be of relevance to people interested in how Proposition 71 is going to play out in California: the egg donation issue and the multiple fraud issue.
Of egg procurement, the Times article did not mention that Hwang Woo-Suk was also indicted for violating the Korean law on bioethics, adopted in January 2005. He paid money to women to obtain eggs for his research.
In December 2005, a US stem cell researcher in commenting on what he saw as hyperventilation about the egg donation problem in Hwang's lab, that, "Now that [Hwang] has done his public mea culpa I say the time is to forgive him and let him get back to plying his great craft. " The same researcher also wrote: We pay women to donate eggs for infertility treatment, and on the whole the practice has been done reasonably well. Donation for ESC research is as important. As long as full information, coverage, etc. are there, there is no reason per se why some financial compensation is not provided.
South Korea had adopted a strong legal framework regarding the procurement of human eggs. It was violated almost immediately, and now we have an indictment. Although the Los Angeles Times had written on April 27: [CIRM] also has adopted top-notch standards for research ethics and the protection of potential egg, one notes that it takes more than standards to see that people are protected. Embryonic stem cell research requires human eggs, and the pressure for researchers to obtain them is immense. Although it was widely rumored that Hwang Woo-Suk pressured subordinates into donating eggs for his 2004 paper in Science, and later that he paid for eggs, little action was taken at the time.
The theme of pressure is present in the multiple fraud issue in the Hwang matter. Although the May 12 Times article wrote "prosecutors said Hwang and an aide fabricated the data in two landmark papers," the situation is a bit more complicated. The prosecutors confirmed Hwang's initial claims that one of his junior researchers, Kim Sun Jong, falsified results of the 2004 and 2005 studies and that Hwang was initially unaware of this falsification. This was not a one-person fraud, or a concerted two-person fraud. Hwang was actually tricked by his subordinate Kim Sun Jong. This is not to say that Hwang did not commit fraud. He did. However, the Hwang saga illustrates how research pressures can cause bad acts, both as to a junior researcher (Kim Sun Jong) and to a team leader (Hwang Woo Suk). Although the May 12 Times article states that Hwang is now "despised as a charlatan," the current situation, especially in South Korea, is more complex. Hwang wrote many articles which were accurate, and just as he was the perpetrator of fraud, he was also a victim of fraud. And, just as people in California want to believe in the end result of stem cell research, so do people in South Korea.
The story of Kim Sun Jong illustrates another point of relevance to Proposition 71. One of the selling points for state funding of stem cell research, in the presence of limitations in federal funding created by President Bush in 2001, was to forestall a loss of research presence from the United States to other countries. If there were no funding in the US, all of the US stars of stem cell research would pack up and go to foreign countries more favorably disposed to stem cell research, and the US would lose its edge in this area of potential high impact. The story of Kim Sun Jong is a counterpoint to this thinking. Working on a team perceived to be the world leaders in stem cell research, Kim Sun Jong, according to Korean prosecutors, falsified research results to obtain exchange fellowships in the US He succeeded in getting to the US, specifically to the lab of Gerald Schatten at the University of Pittsburgh, who has obtained the most federal support for stem cell research. Ironically, in following up on leads of fraud done by Hwang, producers for Korean MBC-TV interviewed Kim Sun Jong in Pittsburgh on October 20, 2005, and, quite prophetically for that time, told Kim that both Science papers by Hwang would be retracted .
In summary, in failing to mention the egg procurement issue and the multiple fraud issue, the May 12 article in the Los Angeles Times lost the opportunity to illuminate two issues of high impact in the implementation of Proposition 71. Eggs will be needed to carry out embryonic stem cell research, and the potential for abuse, and disregard of that abuse, in obtaining eggs is a major, foreseeable, problem. Because the abuse in Korea occurred in the face of strong laws, the assertion that CIRM has adopted strong standards as to egg donation is not the final answer to this issue. Pressure on researchers to obtain significant results can lead to fraud. The Hwang matter involved independent frauds by at least two researchers, and does not fit neatly into the "one bad apple" box.