Saturday, December 3, 2005

Cellular phonies

Is Dr. Hwang a visionary or a charlatan?

MBC's PD Report (I still am not sure if that is the name for "PD 수첩") claims to have the answer. And more and more media outlets are taking their claims seriously (I'll have a post on media-mania groups, of which I was once a victim, very soon).

Quoting Yonhap:

According to MBC, it collected five samples of stem cells and original somatic cells from Hwang's team on Nov. 12, before commissioning DNA tests on them to determine whether they matched or not.

On Thursday, the broadcasting company made public the preliminary outcomes of the DNA tests, saying two of the stem cells didn't match their original somatic cells.

I have not seen either of the MBC reports, but I do have some comments and caveats about MBC's apparent case. In short, I do not think this is a slam dunk. Not yet, anyway.

First, how did they obtain the cells they tested? Were they given to MBC willingly or did they obtain them by subterfuge? If it is the latter, how do we know that these tested cells were from the cells in question?

Second, and this is related to the first point, while MBC says that two did not match, it seems they may be suggesting the others did match. Would this be evidence that the cloning process did work?

Third, if this is a sham, how could the august Science (which talks about Dr. Hwang's admission of ethical lapses here) so easily have been fooled?

And for that matter, why would Dr. Hwang send teams to other universities around the world if he knew that his technique was fake? It would seem a sure way to get found out.

Finally, there is the usual caveat with DNA tests, especially the fewer sets of DNA you have to work with. The quality of the sample is entirely different from the cloning case, but this reminds me of another international uproar that involved DNA testing, that of the remains of Megumi Yokota, a Japanese woman who was abducted to North Korea in 1977 and who, North Korean authorities say, committed suicide in North Korea in 1994.

Her alleged remains were "returned" to Japan, but Japanese were outraged when a Japanese lab said the returned remains were not those of Ms. Yokota. Japanese were incensed that North Korea would return someone else's remains and try to pass them off as the kidnapped Yokota's.

But then quietly, and with no small amount of embarrassment, the lab responsible for the DNA test acknowledged that they had too little to measure conclusively and that it was too contaminated.

According to the Korea Times, the outcry dissolved into an embarrassed silence later when the journal Nature (which is now attacking Dr. Hwang's results) "cast serious doubts over the reliability of the tests and revealed signs of a Japanese cover-up."

For several reasons, I hope that Dr. Hwang's results are genuine and that the ethical issues of ova procurement will make Korean scientists more careful about following accepted regulations. But if it turns out that this was like the cold fusion debacle, that the cloning process was a sham, then Korea has a lot of soul-searching to do it. Only after that soul-searching can the opportunity be grasped to bounce back from such humiliation through an overhaul of how scientific research is conducted here.

1 comment:

  1. When things like this happen, you're in a damned if you do, damnged if you don't situation.

    If you talk, it looks like you're covering your ass. If you say nothing or try to get away from the fray, then your silence or your journey is seen as an admission of guilt.

    I don't know if Dr. Hwang is legit or not, so I'm not saying I think he is probably innocent. I'm just saying I'm not going to read too much into his actions. For now I'm waiting for the MBC report.


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