Is it a matter of shoddy work in the lab? A problem of excessive
deference by junior researchers to senior scientists? Or does the
case of the suspect stem-cell experiments in South Korea - an
episode that is shaking the biomedical field worldwide - point to a
severe lapse of research ethics?
With a probe at Seoul National University just beginning, it is
likely to be some time before investigators can explain what led to
apparent flaws in research - once celebrated as groundbreaking - by
scientist Hwang Woo-Suk. His work involved cloning human embryos to
garner highly prized stem cells specific to individual patients - an
ability seen as an advantage in any future stem-cell therapies.
In the meantime, the case is prompting a closer look at how
scientific journals screen research reports before publication, as
well as forcing a deeper recognition of the intense pressures
scientists can experience while working on cutting-edge, high-
"Scientists are not a special breed of human being," says Thomas
Murray, president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics institute in
Garrison, N.Y. "But they function in a special environment.... They
are bright people working in a community where the best ideas rise
to the top. If you're not in first place, you're no place."
South Korea's probe at the dawn of what some dub "the biotech
century" caps a year of research-ethics challenges.
* Late last month, a US district court judge in Albany, N.Y.,
sentenced a former Veterans Administration cancer researcher to 71
months in jail for criminally negligent homicide. Paul Kornak
admitted that he had forged medical records, opening the way for
people to take part in drug trials who should have been excluded
because of existing medical conditions. One participant whose
records were altered died during the experiment.
* In October, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology fired a
young biologist and promising immunology researcher. MIT officials
say Luk Van Parijs was dismissed after he admitted to school
investigators that he fabricated and altered evidence in research
papers to support grant applications.
* In March, a University of Vermont obesity scientist admitted
faking data in order to buttress grant applications. (He netted $3
million in government grants.) Under a deal with US prosecutors,
Eric Poehlman agreed to plead guilty to criminal fraud and to
retract or correct several research papers.
Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health has tightened its
rules for NIH researchers who also serve as consultants to drug
companies. The NIH is trying to walk a tightrope between avoiding
conflicts of interest and ensuring that scientists can engage in the
open give and take today's complex research efforts require. In a
survey of NIH-funded scientists, released in June, only 1. …