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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Tuesday Twat(s)

No. 48. Dr Hwang Woo-suk.

BBC Online

This week's Twat post will be a humourless rant. I make no apologies, as I can find scant humour in what this man has done.

Twat is probably the mildest name I can think of to describe him.

What the fuck was he playing at?

The damage that this man has done to one of the most promising fields of medical research is potentially devastating.

At present he is faced with possible criminal charges for fraud in his native South Korea. Good. The South Koreans are understandably embarrassed about what he has done, and there is the small matter of his being awarded national medals and $5m per year funding on the back of his "discoveries". However that is only the tip of what he has done.

It is fortunate that his lies were discovered so early, for as time goes on the consequences of his actions would magnify.

When he made his announcement about the cloning of human embryonic stem cells, researchers around the world sat up and raced to download his (since discredited) seminal paper from Science. In Newcastle another group were no doubt deeply disappointed that he beat them to the prize by a mere 24 hours.

When anyone describes a new technique to perform an experiment, one of the first thing that happens is that their peers rush to try and learn the technique themselves. How many valuable human eggs and working hours have been wasted by researchers trying to replicate his fraudulent work?

Furthermore, when a scientist applies for funding for a project, one of the most important components of a grant proposal is a citation of the relevant literature, to demonstrate its feasibility. How much money has been awarded, in part because Dr Hwang had apparently validated the researcher's plan? Hopefully, the relatively short time between the papers' publication and doubts being raised about their veracity, (about 20 months) have kept that to a minimum. Nevertheless, I am certain that around the globe, there were scientists, at all levels who experienced a sickening feeling in the pit of their stomach when they heard the news.

And what of the wider implications? Stem cell research, particularly in conservative religious countries like the US, has been opposed tooth and nail by religious extremists. It has taken years of painstaking persuasion to get countries to legislate in favour of such research - now, every time those arguing against stem cells research on moral ground try to use science to back up their claims, they can just point to Hwang and triumphantly claim "See! It is all fake anyway". The work of the Newcastle group, who now hold the title of the first group to clone human stem cells, will be ignored and even vilified - guilt by association.

And what of the image of the scientist? Hwang has let down scientists of ALL persuasions. My own work has nothing remotely to do with stem cells - yet I feel personally betrayed by him. In some quarters, scientists and the science we practise is under attack in a manner unseen since the time of Galileo. The last thing we need is cunts like this shooting us in the foot.

Finally, and most importantly, what of the crushing disapointment felt by those who could be helped by stem cells? Christopher Reeve and countless others made it their life's purpose to champion this sort of work. When Reeve died last year, he thought that Hwang had brought them closer than ever before to helping people like him walk again. I can only imagine how devastated he would have been had he known what Hwang had done.




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