Korean Stem Cell Research: Science, Journalism, and Humanity

I've been monitoring the ongoing controversy over ethics violation by Korean stem cell research pioneer Hwang Woo-suk. My conclusion is that Professor Hwang did not have an ethics lapse. I'll explain why and also highlight what I see as journalistic terrorism through omission as well as outright lying.

These are the details I put together from reading Korean newspapers:

  1. Eggs used by professor Hwang's research team came from doners through a medical clinic. Professor Hwang was not in a position to know who the donors were. All he knew was that eggs were being donated by volunteers. Without informing professor Hwang, the clinic paid each donor about $1500, supposedly to make up for expenses and time lost. Since the clinic had 40% stake in the stem cell patents filed by Professor Hwang, I suspect their motives were not entirely clean.
  2. When egg shortage was severely impacting the progess of stem cell research, two female assistants in professor Hwang's research team volunteered their eggs. Professor Hwang refused and had to refuse again when they volunteered again later. Two assistance then donated their eggs secretly and paid for the expenses out of their own pocket.
  3. The public controversy started when someone posing as whistleblower contacted production directors of a Korean investigative news program called PD Soo-chup (soo-chup means notebook in Korean) which is not unlike 60 Minutes in the US. The supposed whistleblower claimed that professor Hwang's research was based on fabricated lab results. By this time, professor Hwang was a national hero.
  4. PD Soo-chup reporters then started a visciuos campaign of investigative journalism. They:
    • falsely represented themselves as stem-cell documentary producers.
    • falsely claimed that professor is being investigated and his arrest was imminent.
    • threatened former research assistants with the same fate unless they confessed.
    • secretly taped interviews without permission.
  5. During their investigation, secret egg donation by two research assistance was revealed and rumors started flowing. Some of interviewed professor Hwang's research assistants, now working under professor Gerald Schatten of the University of Pittsburgh who participated in the research, informed professor Schatten. Professor Schatten eventually left the project.
  6. Professor Hwang also became aware of the secret egg donations by two of his assistants. When confronted, the two assistants admitted what they did. But because one of the assistants asked for secrecy out of privacy concerns, he decided not to go public at the time. See my comment below on this.
  7. PD Soo-chup then obtained DNA samples from both professor Hwang's team as well as some patients. When their tests came back inconclusive, apparently due to testing mistakes, they present the results as a proof that professor Hwang's research was faked. When PD Soo-chup aired their first report, netizens forced advertisers to pull their ads.
  8. Later when YTN, another Korean news progam, unveiled details about PD Soo-chup's activities, the program's network, MBC, publicly admitted the mistakes and suspended PD Soo-chup reporters. The president of the network is now expected to step down to prevent being forced to shutdown the network.
  9. Now backfires and echos are surfacing. One former research assistant, accused of being the whistleblower, had to quit his job at a hospital. Another former research assistant, now working in the US, is hiding and hasn't been heard from for a week. More questions about some identical photos in the article submitted by professor Hwang to Science surfaced. Science is saying it was an editorial mistake. Some are saying photos were photoshopped. Oy.
  10. On the upside, egg donations by Korean women have gone up, often with their husband's approval. Apparently, donating egg has now become an act of patriotism.

Meanwhile, news medias abroad have been spreading the news with critical omissions. Wired, for example, wrote:

South Korean stem-cell pioneer Hwang Woo-suk last week admitted he knew about ethically dubious payments to women who worked in his lab for eggs he used in his research, and later lied about it.


p dir=”ltr”>Nowhere does it say he learned of both the dubious payments and egg donations by assistants after it happened. And if omission is equivalent to lying, then aren't most journalists liers as well?

I think professor Hwang regrets the decision he made in #6. In Korea, egg donation by an unmarried woman is seen as the same as having had an abortion, a taboo that could affect a person's life severely. It's rather ironic since Korea is a country where abortion is usually an economic decision and sometimes even a matter of convenience.

Frankly, I think professor Hwang made the right decision because I think science without humanity is meaningless. Also, I think mixing patriotism with science is also dangerous.